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A new control technology has been developed by scientists for a four-legged robot that allowed it to achieve the “effortless” superhuman feat of hiking 120 vertical metres in the Alps in 31 minutes without any falls or missteps.

The advance may lead to the development of new robots and other kinds of robotic technology that can be used in terrain too dangerous for humans, said the researchers, including those from ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

The ANYmal quadrupedal robot successfully finished the hike – which consisted of steep sections on slippery ground, high steps and forest trails full of roots – four minutes faster than the estimated duration for human hikers, according to the study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

“The robot has learned to combine visual perception of its environment with proprioception – its sense of touch – based on direct leg contact. This allows it to tackle rough terrain faster, more efficiently and, above all, more robustly,” study co-author Marco Hutter from ETH Zurich said in a statement.

While humans and other animals handle slippery or soft ground by combining the visual perception of their environment with the proprioception of their legs and hand, researchers said legged robots have been able to do this only to a “limited extent” until now.
They said this was mainly because information about the immediate environment recorded in such robots by laser sensors and cameras was often “incomplete and ambiguous”.

Citing an example of such ambiguous perception, researchers said tall grass, shallow puddles or snow appeared as “insurmountable obstacles” or were partially invisible for these robots, even when they could potentially traverse them.

In addition, they said depth perception could be poor in some cases due to difficult lighting, dust, fog, reflective or transparent surfaces or other factors.

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