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Best-ever jumping robot has real-life ninja moves

Salto, a cute little machine that can leap vertically off walls, could revolutionize search and rescue missions, or at least parkour.

Salto jumps better than you.

Stephen McNally

Roboticists at the University of California, Berkeley have created a cute jumping robot that's the best ever at vertical leaping, putting human parkour enthusiasts and ninja assassins to shame.

Salto (for saltatorial locomotion on terrain obstacles) can leap in the air and then spring off a wall to propel itself even higher, Shinobi-style. Despite being just over 10 inches tall when fully extended, Salto can jump from a stationary position to a height of one meter (39 inches).

But the robot's superpower is its ability to perform multiple vertical jumps in a row like a cyborg Jackie Chan. Theoretically, with tall enough walls and an infinite power supply, Salto could jump its way out of the atmosphere (though it's probably not designed to operate for long at the frigid temperatures it would encounter along the way).

The robot's design was based on observations of the galago, or bush baby. One of nature's best vertical jumpers, the galago is able to jump five times in just four seconds to gain a total of almost 28 feet.

"Animals adapted specifically for jumping have this kind of super-crouch posture," explains UC Berkeley roboticist Duncan Haldane in the below video. "The longer they stay in a crouch, the more energy they can transfer into their tendons and the more energy they can return for jumping. So we built into Salto the capability for a super-crouch."

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The result is that Salto has the highest robotic vertical jumping agility ever recorded, according to the UC Berkeley team. It's defined as the height that something can reach with a single jump in Earth gravity, multiplied by the frequency at which that jump can be made.

Salto's robotic vertical jumping agility is 1.75 meters per second, besting that of a bullfrog (1.71 meters per second) and the next best jumping robot named Minitaur (1.1 m/s), but not quite as speedily gravity-defying as the galago (2.24 m/s).

Next up, Haldane says they hope to draw inspiration from the versatile moves of parkour to create a robot that can navigate through terrain by jumping and selectively choose the right placement, speed and distance for those jumps like a galago or human can. The researchers hope that one day similar robots can be used to make their way around rubble in search and rescue missions.

Hopefully that's the main reason the US Army Research Laboratory supported this research. I was just kidding about all the robot ninja assassin stuff.

A paper on the robot is being published in Tuesday's debut edition of the journal Science Robotics.