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This shape-shifting robot adjusts its body to walk across all kinds of terrain

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Imagine running on a cement footpath, and then suddenly through dry sand. Just to keep upright, you would have to slow down and change the way you run. In the same way, a walking robot would have to change its gait to handle different surfaces.

Generally, we humans and most robots can only change how we run. But what if we could also change the shape of our bodies to run as fast and safely as possible on any surface?

We would like to rely on robots for difficult and dangerous tasks, from inspecting failed nuclear reactors to space exploration. For these tasks, a static body could limit the robot’s adaptability. A shape-shifting body could make the difference between success and failure in these unexpected environments. Even better, a shape-shifting robot could learn the best body shape for different environments and adapt to new environments as it encounters them.

In collaboration with the University of Oslo, we have successfully tested this idea with a four-legged robot that adapts its body to walk on new surfaces as it sees them, performing better than a static-body robot. Our research is published in Nature Machine Intelligence.

A shape-shifting quadruped

DyRET, the Dynamic Robot for Embodied Testing, or “the animal” in the Norwegian of its creator, Tønnes Nygaard, was designed to explore the idea of a shape-shifting robot. Each of DyRET’s four legs has two telescopic sections, so that it can change the length of its thigh or shin bones. The adjustments are made by motors built into the legs and the lengths can be changed automatically while the robot is operating.

The motors can change the height of DyRET by around 20%, from 60cm to 73cm tall. That 13cm makes a dramatic difference to the robot’s walk. With short legs, DyRET is stable but slow, with a low center of gravity. In its tallest mode, DyRET is more unstable while it walks but its stride is much longer, allowing it to travel faster and to step over obstacles.