See a flying, walking bipedal robot with propellers on its shoulders tackle a slackline

LEO the robot can handle a slackline thanks to its combination of legs and drone-like propellers.


Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

It’s a good thing we’re not living in some sci-fi dystopia where sentient robots are out to get us. Instead, let’s focus on the very real accomplishments of Leonardo, a bipedal robot with a unique way of getting around. 

Leonardo stands for “LEgs ONboARD drOne,” but you can call it LEO for short. LEO is the creation of Caltech researchers, who were inspired in part by how birds can flap their wings and also hop and walk with their legs. The robot is able to pull off tricky moves like walking on a slackline and riding a skateboard.

“LEO is the first robot that uses multi-joint legs and propeller-based thrusters to achieve a fine degree of control over its balance,” Caltech said in a statement on Wednesday. The university shared a video where LEO shows off how it blurs the lines between human-like robots and drones.

The Caltech team published a paper on the robot today in the journal Science Robotics. LEO’s versatility means it can call on its walking skills, its flying ability or a combination of the two depending on the terrain and its goals. Caltech described LEO as having “uncanny balance.”

After seeing videos of Boston Dynamics harassing their own robot creations, you might wonder how LEO would respond. “Because of its propellers, you can poke or prod LEO with a lot of force without actually knocking the robot over,” said Elena-Sorina Lupu, a co-author of the paper.

The researcher are already eyeing ways to make LEO more energy efficient by upgrading the leg design to rely less on the propellers for balance while walking. The team is also working on making it more autonomous so it can assess its environment and decide how best to navigate it.

The robotics team sees a possible future for this technology on Mars, where it could represent a new generation of rotorcraft. The concept would build on the success of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter. Imagine Ingenuity with legs, able to land safely on uneven terrain. LEO, the interplanetary explorer? It could happen.

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