Jumping, flipping robot, RHex, joins the freerunning movement

Scott Sutherland

There have been some awesome advances in robotics in recent years, with scientists and engineers designing robots that roam across distant planets, move and act and even look like we do, learn simply by demonstration, and even anticipate our needs.

Now, though, a team at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science has pushed robotic capabilities beyond this with Rhex, a robot that can essentially freerun — running, leaping, flipping and even climbing over obstacles in its path.

RHex, short for 'robot hexapod', gets around on six single-jointed, springy legs. The simplicity of the legs avoids the need for complicated programming, and the combination of that many legs gives it remarkable adaptability to different environments and obstacles. As the video shows (starting at 2:01), it can even jump up, grasp the edge of a precipice with it's forelegs, and then drag itself up and over the edge!

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The original design for the robot was developed around 10 years ago, but this lighter version — X-RHex Lite (RXL) — was developed by UPenn professor Daniel Koditschek and his graduate student Aaron Johnson. They are teaching it freerunning, or Parkour, with the intent that it will one day be used for applications like searching the jagged rubble of a collapsed building for survivors, or traversing the shifting sands and rocky obstacles of the desert while taking environmental readings.

"What we want is a robot that can go anywhere, even over terrain that might be broken and uneven," Johnson says. "These latest jumps greatly expand the range of what this machine is capable of, as it can now jump onto or across obstacles that are bigger than it is."

That is very cool... as long a RHex stays on our side during the inevitable robot uprising.

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