In a nutshell: Researchers from the California Institute of Technology have developed a multi-function robot that can repurpose its limbs to tackle varying terrain. M4 (short for Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot) features four limbs that can operate as wheels for rolling, feet for walking, or propellers for flight. The bot can even combine multiple methods of movement should the terrain call for it. In total, it can achieve eight distinct types of motion.

Using AI smarts, M4 can autonomously assess its environment and select the appropriate locomotion mode for the job. In an unfamiliar environment, the bot could start out by rolling on its four wheels (the most energy-efficient mode). Upon approaching a rock, the bot might stand up on two wheels like a meerkat to peer over the obstacle. Should it approach a chasm or other impassable obstacle, it could transform into a drone and fly to the other side where it could then resume rolling.

M4 can also "walk" thanks to joints on its wheel assemblies, but it is mostly a proof of concept for now. Future iterations are expected to expand its walking capabilities, we're told.

The bot's AI jobs are run on a Jetson Nano, the mini computer Nvidia introduced a few years back.

The bot's design was heavily inspired by nature – specifically, how members of the animal kingdom repurpose appendages to adapt to their surroundings. Sea lions, for example, use their flippers differently in water versus on land, and the chukar bird uses its wings for added leverage when climbing steep inclines.

Biologists have long observed this type of behavior from animals in the wild, but only recently have engineers started integrating such ideas into their mechanical creations.

M4 could have a range of commercial applications including assisting first responders in search and rescue operations, autonomous package delivery, or even exploring other planets or moons in our solar system.

The team's research has been published in the June 27 edition of Nature Communications in a paper titled "Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot (M4), A Platform to Inspect Appendage Repurposing for Locomotion Plasticity Enhancement."