This two-legged robot can run, fly, or even skateboard

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A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has developed a two-legged robot that performs the dual function of walking and flying. The team claims that their latest creation is not only agile but also capable of complex movements. The partly walking robot called Leonardo, partly flying drone, is built in such a way that it can balance itself on a slackline, hop around or even ride a skateboard.

Designed and developed by Caltech’s Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST), the robot’s multi-articulated legs and propeller drives help achieve subtle levels of control over its balance, researchers say.

Speaking about the project, Soon-Jo Chung, Bren professor of aerospace and control and dynamic systems, said the team was inspired by nature, adding that the birds can both fly and navigate phone lines. “Complex but fascinating behavior occurs when birds move between walking and flying,” says Chung, who is also the corresponding author of the study, adding that the researchers wanted to understand this and learn from it.

Chung points out that the way Leonardo uses the synchronized control of distributed propellers and leg joints is akin to a person in a jet suit controlling their legs and feet as they land and take off. “We wanted to examine the interface between walking and flying from the perspective of dynamics and control.”

The team said that two-legged robots are able to negotiate complex terrain, just like humans move when jumping or running, or even climbing stairs. However, when it comes to rough terrain, things get tough for these machines. But then Leonardo’s flight function comes to the rescue – if it can’t run or jump on the ground, it can just fly over it.

Kyunam Kim, a postdoctoral fellow, says that a robot like Leonardo can navigate challenging environments more efficiently compared to traditional robots because it switches between the two available modes of movement. Leonardo “aims to bridge the gap between the two distinct areas of aerial and bipedal locomotion that are not normally intertwined in existing robotic systems,” says Kim, who is also the co-lead author of the article.

There are also some restrictions. Not only does Leonardo use too much energy to fly, it also has limited payload capacity.

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