Tencent’s New Wheeled Robot Flicks Its Tail To Do Backflips

Ollie’s wheels, legs, and tail allow it to balance, flip, manage stairs, and deliver coffee

2 min read
A black and white robot with four legs: each pair of legs is joined by an axle supporting a wheel. A wheeled tail is tucked up under the body.
Photo: Tencent

Ollie (I think its name is Ollie) is a “a novel wheel-legged robot” from Tencent Robotics. The word “novel” is used quite appropriately here, since Ollie sports some unusual planar parallel legs atop driven wheels. It’s also got a multifunctional actuated tail that not only enables some impressive acrobatics, but also allows the robot to transition from biped-ish to triped-ish to stand up extra tall and support a coffee-carrying manipulator.

It’s a little disappointing that the tail only appears to be engaged for specific motions—it doesn’t seem like it’s generally part of the robot’s balancing or motion planning, which feels like a missed opportunity. But this robot is relatively new, and its development is progressing rapidly, which we know because an earlier version of the hardware and software was presented at ICRA 2021 a couple weeks back. Although, to be honest with you, there isn’t a lot of info on the new one besides the above video, so we’ll be learning what we can from the ICRA paper.

The paper is mostly about developing a nonlinear balancing controller for the robot, and they’ve done a bang-up job with it, with the robot remaining steady even while executing sequences of dynamic motions. The jumping and one-legged motions are particularly cool to watch. And, well, that’s pretty much it for the ICRA paper, which (unfortunately) barely addresses the tail at all, except to say that currently the control system assumes that the tail is fixed. We’re guessing that this is just a symptom of the ICRA paper submission deadline being back in October, and that a lot of progress has been made since then.

Seeing the arm and sensor package at the end of the video is a nod to some sort of practical application, and I suppose that the robot’s ability to stand up to reach over that counter is some justification for using it for a delivery task. But it seems like it’s got so much more to offer, you know? Many far more boring platforms robots could be delivering coffee, so let’s find something for this robot to do that involves more backflips.

Balance Control of a Novel Wheel-legged Robot: Design and Experiments, by Shuai Wang, Leilei Cui, Jingfan Zhang, Jie Lai, Dongsheng Zhang, Ke Chen, Yu Zheng, Zhengyou Zhang, and Zhong-Ping Jiang from Tencent Robotics X, was presented at ICRA 2021.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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