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Robotic leaps through exploding gases

While we are able to pack tons of processing and memory capability into robots these days, there are still some skills that evade the non-sentient automatons. The ability to jump or leap is one of them. However, scientists at Harvard University are having breakthroughs that centre on exploding gases. KitGuru makes a leap of faith to see what’s what.

Harvard brought us Facebook, so we need to take it seriously as an institution.

Now Robert Shepherd and his crew have been giving the problem of ‘How can a robot leap into the air’ some thought – and they seem to have managed a breakthrough.

First a little background – starting with a fundamental question: Why would you need a leaping machine?

Well sliding/gliding/walking and flying robots were all relatively easy. Either the systems were geared (literally) toward that single task or, in the case of flying, the plane/drone was already able to perform the function of flying and landing (mechanically), we just needed to replace the human angle with a computer.

Leaping is something else.

You can leap from anywhere to anywhere. The materials under you can change – same for angles and solidity etc. All in all, a far trickier experience. So why might it be useful?

Well Robert was thinking about situations like ‘Search and Rescue’ where the searching has to be ‘up close and personal’ at ground level. In these situations, you need the ability to get over obstacles. Humans take the ‘leaping stuff’ for granted, but it’s incredible difficult for a machine.

And, even once you work out the intelligence and programming needed – what’s the mechanism?  Robert’s team spent a good deal of time and money looking at a pneumatic system to replicate what animals so with muscles, but found that it was slow and cumbersome.

Combustion, as any fan of the Die Hard series will tell you, can blow objects from here to there in an instant. Nice.

Robert’s solution is to deliver a small dose or oxygen and methane to the place where an explosion is needed – then ignite it to achieve ‘leaping androids’. A bit like the process that happens inside a combustion engine, which drives the pistons. To make it work, however, there needed to be soft silicon flaps controlling the process and his team were not sure if it would survive.

While the process can help achieve ‘walking’, it was decided that leaping should come first, because if anything would make this system fail – it would be a series of high pressure explosions.

At the time of writing, the team has successfully managed to get a robot to jump at the equivalent of 4 metres a second – plus the leap itself only raises the overall temperature of the robot by 1 degree per leap for a short period of time – which seems very manageable.

The US Army promised that leaping robots would be used to simulate the migration pattern of bunny wunnies


KitGuru says: It still feels like science fiction, but in the future we can see the applications in (a) search and rescue, (b) checking extremely dangerous enemy territory when the ground is uneven and (c) as a terrifying automated killing machine that’s deployed instead of Marines. KitGuru wonders which one will generate the necessary funding fastest Vs which one will we be ‘sold’ as the primary purpose.

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