MIT ‘cheetah-bot’ could hit speeds up to 33 mph

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When the ‘cheetah-bot’ runs, it bounds with a grace and speed that resembles its animal namesake. The four-legged MIT-designed robot weighs almost as much as its feline counterpart and now researchers have developed an algorithm that lets it jump and run untethered with the potential to reach speeds around 30 mph. Supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, this project was about three years in the making, from getting the hardware ready and taking the design from its conceptual phase to actually racing across MIT’s Killian Court, Sangbae Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the research university, told

While a robot that moves with the agility of one of Africa’s ‘big cats’ sounds like it was borrowed from a Michael Bay “Transformers” film, Kim asserts that there are tangible real world applications for this type of robotics technology down the line.

“Our goal is to use this kind of robot to save lives in a disaster situation. It could be used to help fire fighters or police in a dangerous situation,” Kim said. “One situation that comes to mind is a wildfire. Robots like this could carry water, hose down a fire, move into areas that would be dangerous for a human.”

Getting to that stage would involve more modifications to the robot’s design, and Kim said that “artificial intelligence is far behind the human capability” to assist with complex tasks. Still very much a prototype, Kim said the robotic cheetah’s potential as “an indispensable tool” has generated much excitement among members of his research team.

In order to replicate a cheetah’s agility and speed, each of the electrically powered robot’s four legs are programmed to expend a specific amount of force at the moment when it hits the ground. For the robot to reach faster speeds, more force needs to be exerted to each leg. The researchers tested the robot under various conditions – they had it run on a treadmill, and during experiments on an indoor track, the faux cheetah sprinted up to 10 mph.

Kim said that the algorithm that programs the robot needs to be adjusted for different settings. The space of a treadmill is not big enough for the robot to run very fast, versus a field outdoors. The associate professor said that “this hardware can go up to 33 mph,” and will continue to alter the algorithm in future studies to enable the machine to get closer to hitting its potential speeds.

The robot is also full of surprises.

“During one test, there was a program bug, and as soon as my research scientist pushed the power on, the cheetah actually somersaulted and landed on its feet. It did a flip,” he said.

Not sluggish like many similar robots, the mechanical cheetah possesses a custom-designed, high-torque-density electric motor powered by special amplifiers, both designed at MIT.

In order to realize the ultimate goal of an emergency response robot, Kim said the next phase of the design would be to develop hands that could grasp and open doors. Kim envisions this being developed within the next year.

“Our robot can run and walk and drag things, but it can’t manipulate anything,” Kim said. “A new version might be a little slower, but could perform more complex movements. In the future, I expect to see these robots be useful. I expect to see them in fire stations.”