Disney researchers built the first tetherless hopping robot

The researchers haven't revealed the potential applications, but we can't imagine Disney will have trouble finding a way to monetize the self-powered bouncing robot.
Written by Kelly McSweeney, Contributor

A team at Disney Research (yes, as in Walt Disney) has made the first tetherless hopping robot. This type of single-legged hopping robot is typically only used to study balance issues, but that's because previous versions had to be plugged in. Disney's latest version runs on battery power, so it doesn't need to be plugged into an external motor or power source. Now that the robot is untethered, it can be used outside the lab.

The robot weighs less than five pounds, stands about one-foot-tall, and consists of a leg and a torso. The leg uses a type of motor that operates similarly to a loudspeaker. It is called a linear elastic actuator in parallel, which has the convenient acronym LEAP.

Disney hasn't commented on potential applications for the hopping robot, but in a paper describing the study, the researchers wrote that "legged robots are useful because among other advantages, they can overcome uneven terrain, and can entertain an audience as they act out complex movements." Certainly, Disney won't have trouble finding a way to monetize the self-powered bouncing robot.

In experiments, the researchers demonstrated that the robot could keep its balance for seven seconds, or 19 hops, which isn't all too impressive. However, they succeeded in proving that this kind of robot can be untethered, and they are confident that its performance can be improved with a few simple upgrades. They suggest that future iterations would balance for longer if the robot is made with better hardware and if the on-board computer power is increased by using a mini computer such as an Odroid or a Raspberry Pi.

While it's a bit surprising that robotic breakthroughs are coming from a company that is better known for children's movies and theme parks, Disney Research is actually quite serious. The official purpose of this R&D arm of Disney is "to pursue scientific and technological innovation to advance the company's broad media and entertainment efforts." Its labs, which are located in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Zürich, have made other recent breakthroughs in robotics, as well as technology such as 3D printing, wearables, and of course, animation.

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