UC Berkeley’s new robot is the most vertically agile robot ever built – why is it so unnerving?
The press release for UC Berkeley’s new robotic critter, Salto, tells us that the little guy can "leap into the air and then spring off a wall, or perform multiple vertical jumps in a row, resulting in the highest robotic vertical jumping agility ever recorded." That robots like this could one day be employed for hopping around rubble in search and rescue missions is incredible – but watching the video of Salto in action is … strange.
Named Salto for “saltatorial locomotion on terrain obstacles,” the engineers modeled the super jumper after the most vertically agile creature on the planet, the bush baby – a squirrel-sized primate (pictured above) that can jump five times in just four seconds to gain a combined height of 27.9 feet, according to the engineers. Bush babies have seemingly magical tendons in which energy is stored, allowing them to jump higher than they’d be able using just muscle alone. From the press release:
Adapting this process to Salto enabled its high vertical agility, including the wall jump. Inside Salto, a motor drives a spring, which loads via a leg mechanism to create the kind of crouch seen in the galago [bush baby]. By using power modulation, Salto doesn't need to wind up before a jump; as soon as it jumps, Salto is ready to jump again.
Which may be why the 10-inch robotic creature is a bit unnerving. It’s not creepy in an “uncanny valley” kind of way, more in a overly-agile-robot-spider-predator kind of way. That the work was supported by U.S. Army Research Laboratory doesn’t help. Keeping-it-positive Melissa thinks, yes, great for search and rescue; dark-dystopian Melissa thinks “here comes the mob of weaponized robot bush babies.” But I confess to an overactive imagination.
Anyway. Watch the video below (and make sure you watch at least until it starts jumping off of walls). My disconcerted musings aside, it's really quite incredible.
And just for fun, below is a remarkable BBC video about bush babies' wild agility – they're described as "super balls with a brain, almost impossible to catch." (And when all is said and done, maybe that's why the bush baby robot is so creepy!)