Purr-plexed? Cats teach a robot how to land on its feet

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By Keith Wagstaff

Cats teach human beings things all of the time. Like how to be patient when an animal is screaming, "Meow" in your face at 6 a.m. and why it's not a good idea to leave your headphones on the floor. Now researchers are trying to use them to teach robots how to land upright. 

The old adage is true: Cats really do always land on their feet. (Well, for the most part). Karen Liu, an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, wanted to teach robots to do the same thing.

It's all about the angle of the landing. Cats, she told TODAY, are able to contort their bodies in just the right way so they land gently on their feet. 

"There is always an optimal sequence of poses," Liu said. "If you can reach those poses at the right time, then you are able to orient yourself and land on the ground."

Humans can be good at knowing how to position their bodies in the air — think a diver or a gymnast. But they have to train and be prepared for it. 

"Somehow cats know that sequence in their DNA and they perform it naturally," she said.

Liu wanted to create an algorithm that would let a robot have as much control when falling as a cat does. (Not that robots necessarily need feet to land on). 

So she and her team set up an experiment. They constructed something like an air hockey table to simulate 20 percent gravity, letting their relatively slow-moving robot twist in the ideal positions to eventually land on its feet. 

It worked. Now the researchers just need for motors to become fast enough to test their theory with full gravity. In the end, this is not about helping robots keep their balance. 

"We’re not dealing with a regular fall," she said. "We’re talking about falling or jumping from very high places."

So in the distant future, when you see a terrifying robot leap from a cliff above, you can blame the cat.