Disney's animatronics are coming a long way from drunken pirates waving flagons of ale or hippos that wiggle their ears. In the (relatively) near future, robotic versions of Iron Man or Buzz Lightyear could be performing autonomous acrobatics overhead in Disney theme parks, thanks to the newly-unveiled Stuntronics robot.

Animatronic characters have populated Disney parks for more than half a century, albeit often just looping a specific movement over and over. In recent years Disney Research has tried to make the robots more agile and interactive, developing versions that can grab objects more naturally, and even juggle and play catch with visitors.

Back in May the company unveiled a prototype called Stickman. Basically a mechanical stick with two degrees of freedom, the robot could be flicked into the air like a trapeze artist, where it used a suite of sensors to tuck and roll in midair, perform a couple of backflips, and unfurl for landing.

Impressive as that is, Stickman was far more stick than man. In just a few short months, the project has evolved into Stuntronics, a robot that's noticeably more human. Designed to be a kind of robotic stunt double for a human actor, the Stuntronics robot can perform the same kind of autonomous aerial stunts thanks to a similar load of sensors as Stickman, including an accelerometer, gyroscope array and laser range finding.

But unlike Stickman, Stuntronics can stick its landing too. The former bot tended to land flat on its back, but the new version can land feet-first, and hit what looks like a smaller target. Not only that, it can strike a heroic pose in the air, before tucking back up ready for landing.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Disney Research scientists said that during a stage show or ride, other animatronics or human actors could perform the up-close, static scenes, before the Stuntronics robot is wheeled out when the character needs to fly (or fall with style).

Of course, there's no guarantee that this kind of thing will ever get off the ground (literally or figuratively), but it's always exciting to peek behind the curtain at Disneyland.

Source: Disney via TechCrunch