Bouncing robot reaches new heights, artfully dodges moving obstacles

Meet Salto, a tiny and adorable bouncing robot developed at UC Berkeley. The bot weighs just 100 grams (3.5 ounces) and is about a foot long, and it can move through an environment by bouncing and jumping.

Salto was first developed in 2016, and back then could only jump off the ground once then bounce off wall. The latest version of the robot has learned lots of new tricks, and now it can do hundreds of jumps in a 10-minute period, can jump up to 4 feet high, and can travel forward at eight to 10 miles per hour. It is more intelligent too, and can dodge obstacles, even moving targets.

Ph.D. candidate Justin Yim spent four years working on the bot, and it’s now sophisticated enough that he can take it for short walks around the university campus.

“Small robots are really great for a lot of things, like running around in places where larger robots or humans can’t fit,” Yim explained in a statement. “For example, in a disaster scenario, where people might be trapped under rubble, robots might be really useful at finding the people in a way that is not dangerous to rescuers and might even be faster than rescuers could have done unaided. We wanted Salto to not only be small, but also able to jump really high and really quickly so that it could navigate these difficult places.”

Robotics graduate student Justin Yim led the effort to program Salto with sophisticated control software that lets the robot master complex maneuvers. UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally

The bot was developed using motion capture technology to test its capabilities. The information about how the robot should move is calculated on a laptop and sent wirelessly via radio to a control board inside the robot. This means that Salto can hit a particular spot on a surface very accurately, which enables it to perform complex jump maneuvers.

“It’s worked better than any other of our other robots we’ve had so far,” Professor Ron Fearing of the UC Berkeley Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science said in a statement. “These fast accelerations let us move on surfaces where a conventional robot would just fall right off.”

The next challenge for the team is to get Salto to work on uneven or complex surfaces like grass or gravel. They are also considering adding an arm to the bot to let it interact more with the environment, such as grabbing onto branches and swinging upward.

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