A giant leap for robot-kind

Researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories in Alburquerque, have developed a robot that uses a combustion-driven piston to make leaps as high as 20 feet.

Rush Robinett of Sandia’s Intelligent Systems and Robotics Center conceived the idea while catching grasshoppers for trout fishing. ‘I noticed they jump around in a random fashion, hit the ground in an arbitrary orientation, right themselves, and jump again.’ he says.

Jumping robots have been attempted before using electrically actuated springs, but the energy required for a decent sized leap was too great. However, hydrocarbon fuels provide far greater energy densities than batteries, and researchers realised that a combustion powered hopper could be the answer.

The robot is contained inside a grapefruit-sized plastic shell that rights itself after each jump. A pre-programmed microprocessor inside the hopper reads an internal compass, and a gimbal mechanism rotates the offset-weighted internal workings so that the hopper rolls around until it is pointed in the desired direction.

The combustion chamber fires, the piston punches the ground, and the hopper leaps.

One jumps about 3 feet in the air and 6 feet from its starting point on each jump, but another hopper, developed for DARPA as an experimental mobile landmine platform jumps 10 to 20 feet in the air and can do about 100 hops on a tank of fuel.

As well as working on a self-healing minefield, with hopping mines that sense an adversary’s mine-clearing operations and cooperate with each other to fill any gaps, the team is also working on a hopper that can be controlled remotely using a joystick.

A range of applications are envisaged for these robots; from military reconnaissance and surveillance operations to exploring other planets.