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Watch a transforming robot roll, crawl, stand up and fly

A robot inspired by animals can transform its wheels into propellers and hands, which allows it to crawl, roll and even fly. It could be used to help deliver packages in remote locations and potentially revolutionise space exploration.

Many animals can employ different modes of mobility. “Turtles can crawl on the sand and then become a very good swimmer in the water,” says Morteza Gharib at the California Institute of Technology. “Some birds have wings, but they don’t use them for flying – they use them for keeping their balance or to climb up the hills.”

Gharib and his colleagues created a multipurpose robot by drawing inspiration from the animal kingdom. The Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot, or M4 for short, has four appendages that can turn into wheels, thrusters, legs and hands.

By shifting between different modes, it can perform eight functions: flying, rolling, crawling, crouching, balancing, tumbling, scouting and picking up objects. In scouting mode – inspired by the way meerkats stand on their hind legs – the robot moves into an upright position so it can get a better view of its surroundings.

The vast range of motion allows M4 to travel over rough terrain and steep slopes, crawl in cramped spaces and even tumble over large objects.

“This technology could transform future space explorations, particularly Mars explorations,” says Alireza Ramezani at Northeastern University, Massachusetts. A rover that can fly and navigate difficult terrain could help to collect samples from areas that current rovers can’t easily access, he says.

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Closer to home, the technology could help to deliver packages in hard-to-reach locations, as well as aid in search-and-rescue operations after natural disasters.

Now that the researchers have covered air and land, they hope to create a version of the robot that can swim.

“We are looking at nature as an open book of design,” says Gharib. “There is going to be so many other things that we can do by just appreciating the nature around us.”

Journal reference:

Nature Communications DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39018-y

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