Can Robots Land On Their Feet Like Cats?

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What can robots learn from cats?  Apparently quite a lot, according to scientists.  Cats have natural instincts and reflexes that allow them to fall gracefully, called their righting ability.  They almost always land on their feet.  So what if robots could do the same?  Researchers at Georgia Tech are turning to cats to help soften robot landings.

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Research led by Professor Karen Liu and her team at Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing have been studying how cats and athletic humans optimize their body position in mid-air to achieve a softer landing.  They will then try to apply what they learn to let robots land safely from a jump or fall.  The big picture is that future robots will be able to fall with more agility than ninjas, springing right back up again to carry on instead of landing in a heap of broken metal.  The current reality of robotics technology falls short of such dexterity.  Researchers will study the physics of falling cats and the mid-air orientation of divers and astronauts.

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The team found that a well-designed robot can indeed compute the moves required to adjust its position as it falls to achieve a softer landing, but current technology limits how fast the robot itself can move, so it still can’t achieve cat-like reflexes.  The researchers created a simulated low-gravity setting by using a surface similar to an air hockey table connected to a leaf blower.  With this, they let their robot fall and explored techniques that would minimize impact and damage.   Simulating a fall in slow motion gave the bots enough time to wiggle into an optimal configuration.

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The team hopes to continue their research though, by teaching robots skills involved with orienting themselves while falling, as well as minimizing impact upon landing, something human brains can’t do.  And even if our brains could do that, our bodies aren’t designed to move that way.  This research could be valuable for future search and rescue operations by sending robots into disaster areas, places where humans can’t go.

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