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At first sight, MIT's recently unveiled "Cheetah", may look like an assortment of gears, batteries and motors, but watch it in action and you will soon be reminded of its spotted namesake that also happens to be nature's fastest land predator. Though the robot cannot attain speeds of 60 mph like the real cheetah, the researchers believe they can bring it to race at least 30 mph making it the world's fastest quadruped robot and also, the fastest human (if it were one), since it would easily outrun Usain Bolt's maximum speed of 28 mph!
The key to developing an agile bot like Cheetah that was unveiled to the world on September 15th, is a proprietary running algorithm devised by the MIT team led by Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Sangbae Kim. Traditionally, robots have been designed to accelerate their speeds by spinning their wheels faster. However Cheetah takes inspiration from human athletes like Usain Bolt, who increase their pace by putting more force into each step so that each stride takes them a little farther, in the same amount of time. This force-control method makes Cheetah more agile and capable of maintaining a consistent pace, even through uneven terrain.
That was not all. In order to enable it to reach such brisk speeds, the Cheetah bot had to be designed much like the wild cat it is named after. This meant providing it with a tail to help improve the robot's maneuverability and increase its balance and stability so that it withstand forces of nature. Also, while Cheetah's legs may appear like a mishmash of metal frames and wires, they are designed to be just like those of real cheetahs, which have the most energy efficient arrangement of bones, muscles and tendons.
Another big difference is the way Cheetah has been powered. In lieu of the traditional internal combustion or hydraulic engines, the researchers chose a lighter electric motor. This enables the nimble Cheetah bot to not only run across difficult terrain, but also, leap over obstacles as high as 1.08 feet. Additionally, the electric motor allows the Cheetah to make a fast, stealthy and silent entry, just like its namesake in the wild.
With its fast speeds and bounding capabilities, the MIT team see plenty of opportunities for the robot. They envision packs of Cheetahs assisting with search and recovery following natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes, assisting fireman and even responding to military emergencies. While Cheetah has come a long way from traditional slow-moving bots, its inventors believe they could make it even cooler - Build a version that can not only move on four legs, but also, complete complex human-like tasks by standing on two!
MIT is not the only one trying to mimic the speed and agility of nature's fastest land animal. Boston Dynamics has been experimenting with a number of similar robots. Their most recent one named Wildcat, was released in October 2013. Though it was able to achieve impressive speeds, Wildcat's massive gasoline engine made it very noisy and clunky, and therefore not of much practical use.
Resources: latimes.com, extremetech.com,capitalotc.com