Until now, quadruped robots have been a bit like terrifying mechanical sprinters: They go and go and go, but if they run into an obstacle, they're gonna fall like a tangle-legged AT-AT. So because the prospect of bots that can throw cinderblocks and climb buildings wasn't terrifying enough, Italian researchers are teaching robots how not to trip.
The last time we saw the HyQ bot, a creation of the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa, it was marching along simulated rocky terrain without falling. In the latest development, its human overlords have taught HyQ the "step reflex". This animal behaviour will be familiar to you, as the face-saving adjustment you make when your toe catches a stair or the curb and you don't tumble to the ground.
As you can see in the video above, the step reflex works — to a point. When HyQ's "toe" hits the simulated ledge, it can navigate the obstacle without its legs buckling. The reflex is still pretty slow in practice, but as we've seen with technology time and again, baby steps frequently turn into big, terrifying steps — faster than we'd like. [IEEE Spectrum]