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In a research project on behalf of the U.S. Army, researchers developed an agile miniature robot that may be able to aid in scouting and search-and-rescue operations and save lives of both warfighters and civilians. In a disaster scenario, where people might be trapped under rubble, robots might be useful at finding them in a way that is not dangerous to rescuers and might even be faster than rescuers could have done.

In 2016, the research team at the University of California, Berkeley demonstrated how Salto could take a leap and then immediately spring higher by ricocheting off a wall, making it the world’s most vertically agile robot — jumping for more than three times its height.

Now the Salto robot has a sophisticated control system that allows it to master increasingly complex tasks, like bouncing in place, navigating an obstacle course or following a moving target, all controlled with a radio controller. With its new capabilities, the researchers hope Salto will propel the development of small, nimble robots that could leap through rubble to aid in search-and-rescue and other military missions.

“The physical environment the Army operates in is highly irregular, cluttered, and constantly changing,” said Dr. Samuel Stanton, program manager at Army Research Office, an element of U.S. Army Combat Capability Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory. “The science underlying the advancements is critical for achieving the desired mobility, speed of action, and situational awareness generation necessary for future Army operations.”

Salto’s single, powerful leg enables it to make a series of quick jumps and navigate complex terrain — like a pile of debris — that might be impossible to cross without jumping or flying, as well as temporarily land on surfaces that we might not be able to perch on.

A new technology allows the robot to feel its own body, telling it what angle it is pointing and the bend of its leg.

Without these abilities, Salto has been confined to a room in one of Berkeley’s engineering buildings, where motion capture cameras track its exact angle and position and transmit that data back to a computer, which rapidly crunches the numbers to tell Salto how to angle itself for its next leap. Now that Salto has a sense of itself and its own motion, the robot can make these calculations for itself, as reported by phys.org.

“By understanding the way that these dynamics work for Salto, with its mass and size, then we can extend the same type of understanding to other systems, and we could build other robots that are bigger or smaller or differently shaped or weighted,” said UC Berkeley robotics graduate student Justin Yim.

“This Army investment extends the current state of the art for small ground robot mobility beyond what is currently capable through traditional wheeled and tracked locomotion which are severely limited in complex three-dimensional terrain,” said Dr. Brett Piekarski, Vehicle Technology Directorate, ARL.