Robotics is coming on leaps and bounds – literally: Bushbaby bot most vertically agile yet

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Meet Salto ... The leaping robot (Photo by Stephen McNally)

Roboticists from the University of California, Berkeley, have built the “most vertically agile” robot, capable of jumping better than humans.

Salto, the pint-sized robot, can jump up to a metre in height in less than a second. It stands for saltatorial locomotion on terrain obstacles, and is modeled on one of nature’s most agile creatures – galagos.

Galagos – more commonly known as bushbabies – can often be found flitting from tree to tree at night, and can reach heights of 8.5 metres after bouncing five times in just four seconds. The secret to its success is that it can store elastic energy in its tendons, making it possible to jump higher distances than relying on muscles alone.

A paper in Science Robotics [paywalled] shows that instead of tendons, Salto has a motor-driven spring which stores energy as the robot enters a crouching position. The spring can be recoiled quickly, so Salto is ready to jump again and can leap to reach greater heights, like galagos.

Researchers came up with a new metric to measure vertical agility, which was defined as “the height that something can reach with a single jump in Earth gravity, multiplied by the frequency at which that jump can be made.”

Salto has a vertical jumping agility of 1.75 metres per second – higher than a bullfrog (1.71 metres per second) – but still inferior to galagos (2.24 metres per second). The wall-bouncing robot has 78 per cent of the vertical jumping agility of a galago.

Replicating natural movement is challenging, as it takes a lot of effort to coordinate all the joints and components. Even processes like walking up stairs or making a cup of coffee require a major effort.

The previous record for the best vertical jumping agility was held by Minitaur, a slightly larger and clunkier-looking robot that can jump at about 1.1 metres per second. Salto doesn’t jump the highest, however, as robot TAUB – modelled on a locust – can leap to 3.2 metres in a single jump.

Youtube Video

The research was supported by the US Army Research Laboratory, which is interested in building robots that can manoeuver through challenging terrain.

A UC Berkeley spokesperson told The Register that Salto is being developed for “search and rescue operations,” where it’ll have to manage territories that are like an “obstacle course.” ®

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