Cats Always Land On Their Feet - And Soon Robots Will, Too

It's a pretty well-established fact that cats generally tend to land on their feet, whatever height they happen to be dropped from. They've a remarkable capacity to twist in mid-air, potentially turning even the most painful and damaging falls into safe landings. It's an ability scientists have termed the Cat Righting Reflex, one which is tied to their incredibly flexible backbone and lack of a functioning collar-bone.

It's also one no other animal can really replicate - and that includes humans. Certainly, we can writhe and twist in midair much as cats can; at the same time, however, there are limits to exactly what we can do. Robots, of course, don't really have any such limitation.

That's why researchers at Georgia Tech are now looking to our furry feline friends to help them improve their robots - specifically, they're looking to make search-and-rescue bots better able to survive potentially dangerous falls due to difficult and damaged terrain. In order to facilitate their research, the team - led by Georgia Tech associate professor Karen Liu - is studying the physics of falling cats, along with the orientation of astronauts and divers in the air. 

The team has so far simulated a number of falls, examining the impact of landing with a small robot that consists exclusively of a body and two symmetrical legs. What they found was actually quite interesting - a well-designed robot can actually calculate what's necessary to maintain a safe landing, perhaps even better than a cat. The problem is the hardware - current motor and servo tech isn't even remotely capable of carrying out the necessary movements for self-righting.

Moving into the future, the team intends to carry out further research into self-righting robots, applying what they've learned about cats to help search-and-rescue bots reduce impact and damage when falling. Unfortunately, until motor and servo technology improves, most of that research will be chiefly theoretical. 

You can check out the team's paper here, or a video of their research below.