Quirks & Quarks

An agile robot that can skateboard, slackline and even fly

CalTech’s human-like robot LEONARDO was able to walk a few years ago, but its unique combination of legs and drone-like propellers gives it remarkable abilities.

CalTech’s LEONARDO was able to walk a few years ago, but now can do much more

Caltech's robot LEONARDO has four propellers that enable it to hover and fly as it is doing above this rough terrain. (CalTech)

CalTech's human-like robot LEONARDO was years in the making, but was brought to the public's attention just a couple of years ago because it could walk. And now LEONARDO has mastered skateboarding, slacklining and even flying. 

The key to LEONARDO, which is short for LEgs ONboARD drOne or LEO for short, is the hybrid combination of ordinary looking robot legs and shoulder mounted, drone-like propellers. 

A new study by Kyunam Kim, post-doctoral researcher at the Aerospace Robotics and Control lab at the California Institute of Technology, and his colleagues, describes how they developed Leonardo's capacities.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a robot?

The latest iteration includes four propellers that can tilt so that LEO can launch itself into the air, and sustain flight for short distances. The propellers also serve to maintain the robot's balance when it performs more advanced ground based maneuvers. 

Watch LEO fly, skateboard and slackline:

A question of balance

Using its propellers, LEO can shift its weight to steer a skateboard and balance on a slackline. When necessary, it can increase the thrust of the propellers for short hops, or for flights like an ordinary drone, though this consumes a great deal of power from its onboard batteries, so flights tend not to be very long.

Watch a longer introduction to LEO:

LEO does not have the capacity to make its own decisions about whether to walk or fly, but making this robot fully autonomous is the next stage of this research. A long-term goal of this project is to develop robots for use in exploration and construction on Mars.


Produced and written by Mark Crawley.

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