When you’re designing a robot to emulate the moves of an agile animal that can leap across gaps and carefully tip-toe across uneven terrain, it only makes sense to copy Mother Nature’s designs. It’s why you often see robots with tails, which help improve balance and agility. But staring at Tencent Robotics’ Ollie, I confess that I don’t see a tail swinging around — but rather a different appendage altogether.
The two-legged Ollie trades feet for a pair of powered wheels and appears to take its design inspiration from devices like the self-balancing Segway. It also follows in the footsteps of human-like robots such as Boston Dynamics’ ATLAS or Agility Robotics’ Digit, which both use a pair of articulated legs to traverse difficult terrain or obstacles. It’s a best of both worlds approach that makes Ollie appear impressively nimble in a video shared on the YouTube channel BotJunkie, in which the robot effortlessly rolls over uneven hills and steps onto a raised platform with just one of its rolling legs, keeping its main body level the entire time.
If I was at a pub in the year 2030, this is the kind of robot I’d want waiting on tables. There seems to be little risk of Ollie spilling a drop, even in the middle of a raucous brawl. Where the bot’s design becomes even more impressive is the extra appendage it keeps tucked away between its legs when not in use. It’s a tail, which is more obvious when the robot is performing acrobatics, but I can’t be the only one who sees a robo-penis the rest of the time.
In a demonstration involving two raised platforms a couple of feet apart, Ollie reveals some truly remarkable abilities facilitated by its powerful legs working in tandem with the tail-not-a-penis. With a minimal amount of space to accelerate forward, the robot is able to quickly swing that appendage back and transfer enough momentum to perform a perfect forward flip with its entire body, and then stick the landing.
It’s an Olympic-calibre performance worthy of being lauded on a box of Wheaties cereal, and it shows there’s a lot of potential in a hybrid approach. As capable as Boston Dynamics’ dog-inspired Spot robot is, were it to come across a gap that it couldn’t span with the limited reach of its limbs, it would have to plan an alternate route to get around the obstacle. Ollie, on the other hand, could literally spring into action, clear the gap, and then keep on rolling on the other side, potentially saving time during a critical mission.
The tail has other uses too, like lowering Ollie to the ground and serving as a third leg that provides more stability when the bot is upgraded with a payload or other robotic accessories on top, like an articulated arm that can reach and grasp objects. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a design feature that’s probably going to be popping up on more and more robots in the future. Get used to it.