Some robots jump and some run. Why not both, with a few acrobatics as well? That’s what Jianguo Zhao, a PhD student in engineering at Michigan State University’s Robotics Engineering Lab wanted to know. So he built a robot that does just that.

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The robot is called TailBot and it looks like a three-inch version of a Transformer, but it’s no toy. The robot has legs to jump with, wheels that let it roll along and a tail that lets it do a perfect flip, so it always lands on its feet.

Zhao was inspired by a 2012 study of reptiles and how they use their tails to balance. In that study lizards showed they used their tails as counterweights when leaping, to ensure that they landed on their feet. Zhao asked himself why that couldn’t be applied to robots.

Encouraged by the lab’s director, Professor Ning Xi, he built Tailbot. When the robot trundles along it uses wheels. If it runs into an obstacle like a staircase, the robot’s rail — a stiff rod — extends and pushes it up onto its legs. The legs flex, the robot jumps, the tail swings around to keep the robot upright and helps it land on its wheels. The robot can jump up to 32 inches.

Zhao plans to present his work at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Tokyo this November.

Credit: Jianguo Zhao