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A helicopter for a head helps this bipedal robot walk with confidence

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Well, stumble with confidence

Aerial-Biped coming through, helicopter for a head and lots to do.
Credit: Azumi Maekawa / University of Tokyo

Ask the elderly, toddlers, or the very drunk: walking can be tough. And the times when it is, you need a helping hand to keep you on the straight and narrow. For humans, that might mean a walking stick, but for robots, you can get more creative. The Aerial-Biped, a new robot designed by researchers from the University of Tokyo, uses something much more modern: a quadcopter.

First spotted by IEEE Spectrum, the Aerial-Biped is an interesting experiment in how to make life easier for walking robots. Bipedalism is easy for humans, but a challenge for mechanical friends, requiring, as it does, strength, balance, and an infallible inner-ear.

One way to make walking easier would be obvious to astronauts: just turn down gravity. That way it takes less energy to stay upright, and as a bonus side effect, you take less damage when falling over. The Aerial-Biped effectively reduces gravity for itself by wearing a quadcopter as a hat. That’s how it can stay upright on such relatively spindly legs.

Robots in the past have taken advantage of similar buoyancy aids. One built by scientists from UCLA named Ballu is basically a helium-blimp on top of a slender pair of legs. Another, called Magdan, has magnets in its feet so it sticks to the ground with every step.

Speaking to IEEE Spectrum, University of Tokyo’s Azumi Maekawa, the lead researcher responsible for designing Aerial-Biped, explains that although this method of locomotion is novel, it’s not exactly practical. It wouldn’t be as useful for, say, delivering packages or search-and-rescue operations (commonly mooted tasks for bipedal bots.)

Maekawa instead compares the robot’s gait to a flamingo’s, and says its primary purpose would be in the entertainment industry. “We aim to develop a biped robot that has the ability to display desired motions, including various dances, in addition to walking,” he says, explaining that the design allows for imaginative creations “by enabling movements that have been impossible due to the constraints of the mechanisms.”

So, rather than seeing a helicopter-headed robot walking down the street, you might find it at a theme park serving drinks. A flamingo waiter? Sounds very Disney.