Is LEO the most disturbing drone yet?

Engineers at Caltech have developed a drone that walks, skateboards, balances on a tightrope, and can probably leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s super, but it sure is weird. Get a load of LEO the creepy drone.

LEO is short for LEONARDO, or LEgs ONboARD drone. It isn’t just a Frankensteinian melding of legs and propellers, the engineers designed the drone from the bottom up with walking and flying in mind, and the software to back it up.

Still, it does look like something intended to frighten the villagers.

Is there really a role for a bipedal flying robot? Walking or rolling robots are stable and capable of carrying heavy loads, but struggle with rough terrain or steps. Flying drones are much more mobile, but use a lot of energy. LEO may be a nice compromise. It could help install new equipment in hard-to-reach places, help out during natural disasters, and perhaps even drop off payloads to other planets.

But we all see an embryonic Terminator here, don’t we?

The team told Gizmodo it was inspired by the science fiction robots in Astro Boy and Iron Man. Ultimately, they wanted to study the intersection of walking and flying from a dynamics and control perspective.

“We drew inspiration from nature. Think about the way birds are able to flap and hop to navigate telephone lines,” says Soon-Jo Chung, Bren Professor of Aerospace and Control and Dynamical Systems. “A complex yet intriguing behavior happens as birds move between walking and flying. We wanted to understand and learn from that.”

Get a load of LEO the creepy drone

LEO weighs 5.7 pounds and stands 2.5 feet tall. Its legs assist during takeoff – this required careful design and LEO’s tilted propellers need to be synched to its jumps. That odd walk like a little kid trying on high heels for the first time (at 0:20) apparently helps with a balanced stance. LEO’s a bit of an energy hog at the moment.

“Right now, LEO uses propellers to balance during walking, which means it uses energy fairly inefficiently. We are planning to improve the leg design to make LEO walk and balance with minimal aid of propellers,” says Elena-Sorina Lupu, a graduate student at Caltech.

We’ve spotted some startling walking drones before, but at least they were all Earthbound.

“Because of its propellers, you can poke or prod LEO with a lot of force without actually knocking the robot over,” says Lupu.

“In addition, LEO is capable of performing unusual locomotion maneuvers that even in humans require a mastery of balance, like walking on a slackline and skateboarding,” says Patrick Spieler, a former member of Chung’s group.

Watch LEO tightrope walk at 0:41 and skateboard at 0:44. If you happen to see it in the wild… try to resist the impulse to kill it, kill it with fire.

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