Meet Baleka – she can’t speak like her namesake in Parliament, but she sure can jump.

Baleka – from the Xhosa word for “running” – is a biped (two-legged robot) designed by a team of UCT engineering students to solve the motion problem of acceleration.

Dr Amir Patel, team leader and senior lecturer in Mechatronics, Robotics and Automation, says much of the current research in robotic motion focuses on ‘steady-state’ or ‘constant velocity motion’, that is, on building robots that move along a directional path, but not on the crucial part before it – ‘transient motion’, or getting them to move in the first place.

Hence Patel’s idea for Baleka, whose development he tasked master’s student Alex Blom with.

The robot is capable of jumping straight up and down, mimicking complex animal movement in the way it crouches in anticipation of a jump, extends its legs independently on the downward path to right itself in an uneven fall, and leaps again once its footing is assured.

Patel says team members, who have spent two years designing and optimising Baleka, hope their work will not only result in new robotic applications, but also serve as platforms for biomechanics to better understand the way humans and animals move.

Next steps
These themes will also guide Baleka’s further development into a running robot. “Rapid transient motion is the new frontier,” Patel says.

Robots capable of transient motion can quickly speed up, navigate objects and come to a halt. With these abilities, robots could be sent on dangerous search-and-rescue missions to locate areas of need, while fast and deftly avoiding obstacles such as falling rubble.

But such movements require an understanding of how biped and quadruped robots pick up speed and slow down. “In the robotics community, these motions are largely ignored due to their complexity,” says Callen Fisher, a PhD student working with Patel’s team.

It’s a knowledge gap that the UCT team aims to bridge, by developing novel controllers and platforms as part of their pioneering work. And they’ve already taken the first step, in designing Baleka, the cat-like jumping robot.

“It was really difficult to do, because no-one knows anything about rapid acceleration motions,” Blom says. “We had to develop an entirely new way to design the robot.”

Baleka featured among the presentations at the IEEE’s 2018 International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia.