This Insect-Inspired Robot Can Out-Leap Lebron

December 18, 2015, 9:34 PM UTC
Tel Aviv University

Locusts jump their way out of trouble in nature all the time; it’s an escape mechanism for the insects. But put the jumping power of a locust into a remote-controlled robot, and you’ve got a handheld machine that can swarm into action for oil spills, conduct search and rescue missions, or explore places humans simply can’t reach.

That’s the thought behind the latest jumping robot, whose impressive jumping power was revealed recently in Bioinspiration and Biomimetrics by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Tel Aviv University and Ort Braude College in Israel.

Their new locust-bot is the first of its kind to jump a full 11 feet in the air—twice as high as any similar robot. The tiny bot measures five inches long and weighs less than one ounce.

But with that slight a build, it took more than just engineers to figure out how make the leap. The team also included biology professor and locust expert Amir Ayali to build the wonder jumper. “I have nothing to do with engineering usually,” Ayali says. “When you want to generate a small robot, a good strategy would be to look for inspiration in nature.”

For instance, insects have evolved to engage massive amounts of jumping energy beyond their own muscle strength, harnessing the physics of stored energy to jump higher and farther. “This is done by some kind of spring-like mechanism,” Ayali says.

For the robots, however, the energy is stored by using actual springs. As the muscles—or in the robot’s case, the carbon rod legs—ready to jump, the springs store up energy and turbo-charge their leaps, launching the locusts to altitudes more than ten times their own height. By comparison, even world record-holding humans can only manage to elevate around five feet, vertically. Lebron James soars about 40 inches, according to ESPN.

But the robot can also launch itself forward, covering a distance of four and a half feet with one leap. And with the addition of cameras, sensors, and GPS, it could be adapted to help with everything from tasks around the house to exploring places too small or dangerous for humans to navigate.

The tech has already been patented in the U.S. and Ayali says it has piqued the interest of “commercial companies” (though he won’t say which ones or how many). And while this generation of locust robots is set to launch, the team is also working on getting their next generation to “grow” wings, which would allow the robots to glide, but also take off and go wherever they need, without a predator in sight.

Watch more robots in the wild, with this these Google robots navigate trails: Fortune video:

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