News & Events


LEONARDO, the Bipedal Robot, Can Ride a Skateboard and Walk a Slackline


Researchers have built a bipedal robot that combines walking with flying to create a new type of locomotion, making it exceptionally nimble and capable of complex movements. "We drew inspiration from nature. Think about the way birds are able to flap and hop to navigate telephone lines," says Soon-Jo Chung, Bren Professor of Aerospace and Control and Dynamical Systems; Jet Propulsion Laboratory Research Scientist. "A complex yet intriguing behavior happens as birds move between walking and flying. We wanted to understand and learn from that." A paper titled "A bipedal walking robot that can fly, slackline, and skateboard" about the LEO robot was published online on October 6 and was featured on the October 2021 cover of Science Robotics. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights CMS Soon-Jo Chung Elena-Sorina Lupu Kyunam Kim Patrick Spieler Alireza Ramezani

New Algorithm Helps Autonomous Vehicles Find Themselves, Summer or Winter


Without GPS, autonomous systems get lost easily. Now a new algorithm developed at Caltech allows autonomous systems to recognize where they are simply by looking at the terrain around them—and for the first time, the technology works regardless of seasonal changes to that terrain. The general process, known as visual terrain-relative navigation (VTRN), was first developed in the 1960s. By comparing nearby terrain to high-resolution satellite images, autonomous systems can locate themselves. The problem is that, in order for it to work, the current generation of VTRN requires that the terrain it is looking at closely matches the images in its database. To overcome this challenge, Anthony Fragoso, Lecturer in Aerospace; Staff Scientist, Connor Lee, Graduate student in Aerospace, Austin McCoy, Undergraduate, and Soon-Jo Chung, Bren Professor of Aerospace and Control and Dynamical Systems and research scientist at JPL, turned to deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to remove seasonal content that hinders current VTRN systems. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT MCE CMS Soon-Jo Chung Anthony Fragoso Connor Lee Austin McCoy

How Do You Test a Helicopter Bound for Mars?


Caltech grad students helped JPL build a custom wind tunnel in a vacuum chamber for the Mars Ingenuity helicopter. The Ingenuity helicopter may be the first vehicle ever to fly on Mars, but Mars was not the first place it has ever flown. Before packaging it up and blasting it to the Red Planet, engineers at JPL gave the helicopter a trial run in a special wind tunnel. The fan array was designed and built by JPL engineers with input from Chris Dougherty and Marcel Veismann, who are currently working with Morteza Gharib, Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering and Booth-Kresa Leadership Chair of Caltech's Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST). Jason Rabinovitch, who was a mechanical engineer at JPL working on testing the helicopter, reached out to the CAST team in 2017. "I'd earned my PhD at GALCIT, so I was aware of CAST and its facilities," says Rabinovitch. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT Morteza Gharib Jason Rabinovitch Marcel Veismann Chris Dougherty

Hungry Fruit Flies are Extreme Ultramarathon Fliers


Michael Dickinson, Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering and Aeronautics; Executive Officer for Biology and Biological Engineering, has discovered that fruit flies can fly up to 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) in a single journey—6 million times their body length, or the equivalent of over 10,000 kilometers for the average human. "The dispersal capability of these little fruit flies has been vastly underestimated. They can travel as far or farther than most migratory birds in a single flight. These flies are the standard laboratory model organism, but they are almost never studied outside of the laboratory and so we had little idea what their flight capabilities were," Dickinson says. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT Michael Dickinson CNS

Student-Led Moon Dust Shield Team Named Finalist in NASA Competition


As astronauts walk across the moon, land spacecraft on its surface, drive lunar rovers around, or complete other astronaut tasks, they kick up the dust, and that is a problem because it can cause premature wear on mechanical parts, damage to seals, and may pose a health risk for the people breathing it in. "The sun is shining directly on these particles and giving them an electric charge," says third-year Caltech undergraduate student Luis Pabon. "This causes it to stick to the astronaut's suit or to any sensors or cameras that you put out on the moon." The Caltech team's invention, named Habitat Orientable & Modular Electrodynamic Shield (HOMES), tackles the problem of moon dust entering a potential lunar habitat and wreaking havoc within. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT MCE Luis Pabon

Lab-Grown Earthquakes Reveal the Frictional Forces Acting Beneath Our Feet


Simulating an earthquake on a miniature scale in a laboratory known unofficially as the "seismological wind tunnel," engineers and seismologists have produced the most comprehensive look to date at the complex physics of friction driving destructive thrust-fault earthquakes. "Simulating earthquakes in a lab lets us observe how these brief and violent events grow and evolve by ‘slowing down' their motion through high-speed photography and optics," says Ares Rosakis, the Theodore von Karman Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT MCE Ares Rosakis

Machine Learning Helps Robot Swarms Coordinate


Soon-Jo Chung, Bren Professor of Aerospace, Yisong Yue, Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, postdoctoral scholar Wolfgang Hönig, and graduate students Benjamin Rivière and Guanya Shi, have designed a new data-driven method to control the movement of multiple robots through cluttered, unmapped spaces, so they do not run into one another. "Our work shows some promising results to overcome the safety, robustness, and scalability issues of conventional black-box artificial intelligence (AI) approaches for swarm motion planning with GLAS and close-proximity control for multiple drones using Neural-Swarm," says Chung. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT CMS Yisong Yue CNS Soon-Jo Chung postdocs Benjamin Rivière Guanya Shi Wolfgang Hönig

Microstructures Self-Assemble into New Materials


A new process developed at Caltech makes it possible for the first time to manufacture large quantities of materials whose structure is designed at a nanometer scale—the size of DNA's double helix. Pioneered by Julia R. Greer, Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering; Fletcher Jones Foundation Director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute, "nanoarchitected materials" exhibit unusual, often surprising properties—for example, exceptionally lightweight ceramics that spring back to their original shape, like a sponge, after being compressed. Now, a team of engineers at Caltech and ETH Zurich have developed a material that is designed at the nanoscale but assembles itself—with no need for the precision laser assembly. "We couldn't 3-D print this much nanoarchitected material even in a month; instead we're able to grow it in a matter of hours," says Carlos M. Portela, Postdoctoral Scholar. "It is exciting to see our computationally designed optimal nanoscale architectures being realized experimentally in the lab," says Dennis M. Kochmann, Visiting Associate. [Caltech story]

Tags: APhMS research highlights GALCIT MedE MCE Julia Greer KNI Dennis Kochmann postdocs Carlos Portela

Ultrasound Can Selectively Kill Cancer Cells


Michael Ortiz, Frank and Ora Lee Marble Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus, and Morteza Gharib, Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering; Booth-Kresa Leadership Chair, Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies; Director, Graduate Aerospace Laboratories; Director, Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies, are exploring a new technique that could offer a targeted approach to fighting cancer. Low-intensity pulses of ultrasound have been shown to selectively kill cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed. In the past, ultrasound waves have been used as a cancer treatment with high-intensity bursts resulting in killing cancer and normal cells. [Caltech story]

Tags: APhMS research highlights GALCIT MedE MCE Morteza Gharib Michael Ortiz

Bionic Jellyfish Swim Faster and More Efficiently


John Dabiri, Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering, has developed a tiny prosthetic that enables jellyfish to swim faster and more efficiently than they normally do, without stressing the animals. Dabiri is envisioning a future in which jellyfish equipped with sensors could be directed to explore and record information about the ocean. "Only five to 10 percent of the volume of the ocean has been explored, so we want to take advantage of the fact that jellyfish are everywhere already to make a leap from ship-based measurements, which are limited in number due to their high cost," Dabiri says. "If we can find a way to direct these jellyfish and also equip them with sensors to track things like ocean temperature, salinity, oxygen levels, and so on, we could create a truly global ocean network where each of the jellyfish robots costs a few dollars to instrument and feeds themselves energy from prey already in the ocean." [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT MCE John Dabiri