DARPA's cheetahbot: Fastest thing on two -- robot -- legs

Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have broken the land speed record for legged robots with a cheetahbot. Built to move like its feline namesake, the robot hit a speed of 18 miles an hour, which couldn't keep up with an actual cheetah but surpasses the old robot record of 13.1 miles per hour set in 1989.

The cheetahbot, which DARPA simply calls "Cheetah," is part of the agency’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, which seeks to create an improved scientific framework to rapidly design and build robots and to greatly enhance robot mobility and manipulation in natural environments. The program is moving along four parallel research and development tracks: tool design, improving production methods and processes, improvements in control of robot movement and manipulation, and prototype demonstration.

Like previous efforts, such as the Legged Squad Support System robo pack mule, DARPA scientists are learning from nature to make robots that can potentially tackle any terrain they come across. The robot’s movements are modeled on those of fast-moving animals, such as the cheetah. To achieve its high speed, the bot increases its stride and running speed by flexing and unflexing its back on each step, much like the actual hunting cat, DARPA officials said.

The current version of the cheetahbot is powered by an external hydraulic pump and uses a boom to keep it running in the center of a lab treadmill. The agency plans to test a free-running prototype later this year, officials said.

Robotics researchers also are moving toward humanoid robots. Boston Dynamics, which in 2008 produced the 4 mph Big Dog for DARPA, last year created PETMAN, which moves on two legs.

Below is a video of the cheetahbot in action.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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