This Robot's Acrobatic Leaps Are the Coolest Thing You'll See Today

This jumping robot video will make you love robots even more

2 min read
This Robot's Acrobatic Leaps Are the Coolest Thing You'll See Today

Animals can jump. It’s one of the things that makes them so good at getting around. To be more specific, though, animals can generally jump in addition to whatever other method of movement that they employ. We’ve seen lots of robots that can run, and lots of robots that can jump, but with a few exceptions, there hasn’t been a lot of effective crossover, because building a robot that’s physically capable of doing both in a useful manner is not an easy task.

Now University of Pennsylvania researchers, presenting today at 2013 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), showed what happened when they taught their RHex legged robot to jump. The results are pretty darn amazing.

Jumping is very, very useful for a robot. Sand Flea uses it to get over obstacles. RHex can do that and more: It's learning to cross gaps by employing a series of jumps. And if that series of jumps is extended, it provides a quick transition method from stationary to a running gait. Jumping is also good if you’ve got a sensor that you need to be at a certain height to use, or if you need to flip yourself over.

And note that this is not a small robot. The UPenn researchers are using their X-RHex Light, or XRL, which weighs 6.7 kilograms (14.8 pounds) and has a body length of 51 centimeters (20 inches). The robot has six compliant C-shaped legs, each with a diameter of 17.5 centimeters (6.9 inches), independently actuated by Maxon 50-W brushless motors.

Here’s exactly what the robot is capable of:

  • A vertical standing leap of 30 centimeters (200 percent of RHex’s standing height)
  • A double leap that crosses a 60 centimeter gap (120 percent of RHex’s body length)
  • A climbing double leap onto a ledge of 29 centimeters
  • A vertical leap-grab onto a desk with a height of 73 centimeters (!)

As far as what’s next, the researchers are experimenting with “a broader range of dynamical transitions, particularly ones exploiting compliance, including the entirely novel prospect of using the leg springs in extension introduced here.” “Dynamic” is a fancy way of saying “exciting” and “novel” is a fancy way of saying “new and cool,” and with extra springy legs throwing some extra energy into the mix, we’re looking forward to seeing what sorts of acrobatics are going to be possible.

"Toward a Vocabulary of Legged Leaping," by Aaron M. Johnson and D. E. Koditschek from the University of Pennsylvania's Kod*lab, was presented this week at ICRA 2013 in Germany.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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