Cats have natural instincts and reflexes that allow them to fall gracefully.They almost always land on their feet. So what if robots could do the same? That's what a team of researchers at Georgia Tech are asking as they study cats falling and jumping movements so that they can create robots that fall as gracefully and with minimal damage.

Cats have flexible backbones that allow them to turn themselves in the air as they fall. So the Georgia Tech team started with a simple robot with several flexible joints.

However, their robot can't move as fast as a cat, so they created a simulated low-gravity setting by using a surface similar to an air hockey table connected to a leaf blower. With this, they let their robot fall and explored techniques that would minimize impact and damage, including a "soft roll."

"It's not the fall that kills you. It's the sudden stop at the end," says Karen Liu, associate an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing at the university. "One of the most important factors that determines the damage of the fall is the landing angle."

The research team discovered that if they designed a robot in a certain way, its "brain" could process the computations necessary for softer landings. However, current technology limits how fast the robot itself can move, so it still can't achieve cat-like reflexes.

The team hopes to continue their research, though, by teaching robots skills involved with orienting themselves while falling, as well as minimizing impact upon landing, something human brains can't do. And even if our brains could do that, our bodies aren't designed to move that way.

But cats can and do it naturally, and that's why they serve as inspiration for this sort of future technology.

"If we believe that one day we will have the capability to build robots that can do this kind of highly dynamic motion, we also have to teach robots how to fall - and how to land, safely, from a jump or a relatively high fall," says Liu.

This research could be valuable for future search and rescue operations. Sending robots into disaster areas, places humans can't go, is a no-brainer, and with the abilities to jump high distances without damaging its system will prove vital for such robots.

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