Robot Climbs Wall, BASE Jumps

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So robots can rescue miners, vacuum your floors and walk on water. But can they  BASE jump?

Well, they can now. A team of students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), collaborating with Disney Research, has built a robot called Paraswift. It climbs a wall, deploys a parachute and jumps.

While it’s certainly entertaining, that wasn’t the entire reason to design the thing. The group of 10 students brought together mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and industrial design. They wanted to find a way to build a better wall-climbing robot.

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Most robots do it with magnets or suction cups. Some try to grip. All three methods are limited. The first can only stick to metal surfaces. The second needs to create a good seal, and that isn’t easy on a rough surface. Grips are better for cliff sides but less useful for something like a building, which has fewer handholds.

To get around this, the students designed a kind of suction cup that constantly generates a low-pressure zone inside it. A regular suction cup needs a good seal, because the lower pressure inside it (which sticks it up) has to be maintained. But if you put an impeller in it and constantly force air out, it no longer matters if the seal isn’t perfect.

Then came designing the flight systems. The challenge there was that the Paraswift isn’t as high as a regular BASE jumper would be, so whatever parachute it uses has to deploy quickly. In this case, the team built it with a parachute that looks a bit like a hang glider and is deployed by remote control before the jump.

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As much fun as watching robots jump off buildings may be, there is more to this story. Any robot that can climb a building surface would be useful — especially if its inventors could find a way to get it going faster. For instance, it could take pictures of areas that human can’t get as close to, which could help structural engineers or even offer a better way to map an area in 3-D (by getting another perspective).

Credit: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology