The future of search-and-rescue robots might be centaur, not human

What has six legs, four wheels, and two karate-chopping hands? Why, it’s Centauro — a new search-and-rescue robot built by researchers from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia.

Centauro is the latest experiment by scientists to find the most adaptable and useful body-shape for robots designed to help in disasters. Usually, these machines are built like humans, with two arms and two legs, but researchers are increasingly finding that hybrid designs offer more flexibility. With its four wheeled legs, Centauro is more stable than a humanoid bot, but still retains the two forward-facing arms needed for manipulating objects like tools and doors. (Or, as in the video below, karate-chopping some plywood for fun.)

As reported by IEEE Spectrum, Centauro’s design builds on that of Momaro, another centaur-robot designed by researchers from the University of Bonn. Momaro was the top European performer at DARPA’s Robotics Challenge in 2015, which tested the ability of robots to carry out the sort of tasks they might face in a search-and-rescue mission. (Yes: this was the same event where lots and lots of robots fell down.) Other top performers at the event were also hybrids, including the winning team from South Korea’s KAIST university, who built a robot that transformed from a bipedal design to a wheeled one.

Centauro itself is 1.5 meters tall, weighs 93 kilograms, and is made of an assortment of lightweight metals (like aluminum, covered by a 3D-printed plastic “skin.” It has a 2.5-hour battery life, and is controlled at all times by a human operator.

The main selling point of this design, though, is flexibility. Each of the robot’s limbs has six degrees of freedom, and can rotate at the hip, knee, and ankle. This means it can take on a number of different postures, including an upright wheeled position (best for for quick movement) and a crouched “spider” mode, which gives it more stability when operating tools. It can also pick its way through rubble and even climb up stairs.

Of course, designing the robot itself is only have the challenge. Now, researchers have to figure out how best to control it; and will be testing Centauro’s might with ever-more difficult challenges. And who knows, in the future we may see robots with centaur designs rescuing humans from dangerous situations. That’s one way for fantasy to become reality.