LEONARDO is an agile robot that can walk or fly. Caltech View 3 Images
By Michael Irving
2021 Oct 06
Whether you think it’s cool or unnerving, robots are becoming more agile – and Caltech’s LEONARDO looks like one of the most nimble examples yet. LEO walks on two legs, jumps and flies, can balance on a slackline and even skateboard.
Most robots are stuck with one type of movement – they can either fly, swim, or walk or drive across the ground. But these bots might have a better chance of overcoming obstacles by combining multiple modes of transport, and LEONARDO looks like an elegant example of that.
Standing about 2.5 ft (0.8 m) tall, LEO walks on its spindly three-jointed legs like a chicken wearing high heels. Its exceptional balancing skills come courtesy of four drone-like propellers at its shoulders, which not only help correct its stance, but let it take to the skies to leap over rough terrain, stairs or other obstacles.
“We drew inspiration from nature,” says Soon-Jo Chung, corresponding author of the study. “Think about the way birds are able to flap and hop to navigate telephone lines. A complex yet intriguing behavior happens as birds move between walking and flying. We wanted to understand and learn from that.”
These mixed movement modes give LEO a few advantages over choosing one or the other. Its thrusters give it better balance than a two-legged robot would normally have, while the legs take the stress off the thrusters by supporting most of its weight.
In fact, the only thing about the robot that’s clumsy is its name. LEONARDO apparently stands for “LEgs ONboARD drOne,” which reads almost like sarcasm. If you want to name your cool robot “Leonardo,” you can just do it without pretending that it’s an acronym.
LEO has come a long way in the two years since it was first unveiled. The robot has moved away from tethered tests in the lab to walking and flying around outside, and it has picked up two neat tricks that expertly demonstrate its agility. The team had the robot walk on a slackline without falling off, and it could even slalom a skateboard through a set of traffic cones – both tasks that many humans would have trouble with, let alone other robots.
The team says that LEO will only get more nimble, too. Future versions will have more rigid legs, more forceful thrusters, and smarter algorithms to help it navigate, walk, fly and land more efficiently.
The research was published in the journal Science Robotics. Check out LEO in action in the video below.
Leonardo: The Skateboarding, Slacklining Robot
Michael Irving Michael has always been fascinated by space, technology, dinosaurs, and the weirder mysteries of the universe. With a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and several years experience under his belt, he joined New Atlas as a staff writer in 2016.
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