The California Institute of Technology has developed a robot that can walk and fly.
© Caltech

Innovations need a name. When it comes to presenting particularly inventive machines, Leonardo da Vinci, the uomo universale, likes to be the godfather. This is also the case here. LEONARDO is the name of a robot developed at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) that combines walking and flying to form a new form of locomotion and is thus supposed to be extraordinarily agile and capable of complex movements. But the name LEONARDO is not only reminiscent of the ingenious Renaissance artist and inventor; it is also an acronym for “LEgs ONboARD drOne”. The combination of walking robot and flying drone, known as LEO for short, is even supposed to be able to skateboard and balance on a slackline. LEO is 2.5 ft (about 1.5 m) tall and equipped with two legs that have three joints, as well as four propeller engines attached to the robot’s shoulders.

LEONARDO was developed by a team at Caltech’s Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST). “We took inspiration from nature. Just think about the way birds can flap and hop to navigate through phone lines,” says Soon-Jo Chung, professor of aerospace and control and dynamic systems. “When birds switch between walking and flying, a complex but fascinating behaviour occurs. We wanted to understand this and learn from it.”

Bipedal robots can navigate complex terrain by performing the same kind of movements as humans: walking, jumping, running or climbing. The rougher the terrain, the more limited the locomotion. Flying robots, on the other hand, can easily avoid obstacles in the terrain; however, high energy consumption limits their payload capacity. Robots with a “multimodal locomotion capability”, on the other hand, are able to move efficiently in difficult environments by switching between the modes of locomotion available to them as needed. According to the researchers, the technology used in LEO could aid the development of adaptive chassis systems. The team envisions that future rotorcraft on Mars could be equipped with leg landing gear, allowing the flying robots to maintain balance when landing on uneven terrain and reducing the risk of failure in difficult landing conditions.

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