Sticking the landing: Donghyun Kim's quest to build a robot that can performa backflips

Three years ago, a private company called Boston Dynamics released a viral YouTube video of a two-legged, humanoid robot that could perform backflips. It was the first successful demonstration of its kind, but one whose research remains proprietary and hidden from the public. Now, UMass Amherst professor Donghyun Kim, College of Information and Computer Sciences, a specialist in dynamic, bipedal motion in robots, is helping to build a robot that can take robotic acrobatics to the next level—and he’s making his research publicly available.

“Think about running,” says Kim. “Think about the hundreds of nearly instantaneous perceptions and responses your body has to make to keep you from falling flat on your face or bumping into other people or obstacles.” It wasn’t until 2000 that engineers created a bipedal, humanoid robot that could run, and flipping is a far more complicated task.

“Jumping is the easy part,” says Kim. “You just push really hard against the ground.” It’s sticking a perfect landing that is extremely complex, and it’s this task that Kim faces. He’s part of a team of MIT researchers that previously developed “Mini-Cheetah,” the first backflipping four-legged robot, which currently lives in Kim’s UMass lab. “We have only a .5 second window in which the robot needs to perceive where it is in the air and adjust itself. And it has to do this procedure many times in order to successfully land.”

So far, the team has only run simulations, but Kim is expecting to carry out the tests on the real hardware after the summer of 2021. “We have 80% confidence that it’ll work,” says Kim. “That’s actually extremely high—I usually have only 20% confidence. The real world is amazingly uncertain.”