Featured NewsProduct NewsEvolving Tech"Transformer" Drone flies, drives, and walks


28 July 2023

The Transformers series of action flicks is pretty loud, visually mindblowing, and exciting. And now, real life is mirroring alien tech—thanks to some futuristic researchers at Caltech’s Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST). 

Named M4—or Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot—by its creators, the "Transformer Drone' can zip around on four wheels, stand on two wheels, use its wheels like feet and walk around, and use its wheels as rotors to get airborne.

And, much like the alien Transformers who take the guise of earthly animals when in battle mode, the M4 designers also found inspiration from nature.

The creators detailed their creative and scientific processes in a recent paper published in Nature Communications.

Unfortunately for sci-fi aficionados, the M4 does not morph into a bird when it flies, or a meerkat when on two wheels, and so on. lnstead, it appears much like a rectangular appartus with four big wheels attached. Of course, those wheels have rotors inside for flying. 

“Our aim was to push the boundaries of robot locomotion by designing a system that showcases extraordinary mobility capabilities with a wide range of distinct locomotion modes," said Alireza Ramezani, one of the authors of the paper. "The M4 project successfully achieved these objectives.”


The M4 uses AI to assess its environment and determine which form of motion is best for the location—whether it's water (better fly now), a flat floor (four-wheel drive), or obscured (stand on two wheels to determine next move). M4's ability to navigate complex terrain could be critical for search-and-rescue operations and even exploration of other planets, such as Mars. Research has been funded by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Science Foundation.

"When encountering unknown environments, only robots that have the ability to repurpose their multi-modal components aided by artificial intelligence can succeed,” said CAST direction and paper co-author Mory Gharib.

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