DARPA's robotic cheetah runs faster than Usain Bolt, dooms us all

[Credit: Boston Dynamics]

Who can run faster, a man-made robot or Usain Bolt? Given the perfection of the human body, you’d think that incredible machine would be faster than an awkward-looking, four-legged metal contraption. But you’d be wrong.

Boston Dynamics’s Cheetah robot sprinted at an astounding 28.3 miles per hour before it toppled and fell over, setting a new robot running record. True, the robot was fastened to the treadmill, which you can’t say about Bolt, but this robot can almost compete with the best of racehorses.

The Cheetah is a project from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). It’s built by Boston Dymanics, the same company that brought us the BigDog, an eerily lifelike robot being used for military purposes. The Cheetah, while not as lifelike, has been around for years, and it’s improved significantly in that time. When we last saw it in March, the four-legged robot clocked speeds of 18 miles per hour. Before that, the robot running record was a paltry 13 mph, which was set back in 1989.

In case you were wondering, Bolt’s average sprint speed is calculated to be around 23.7 miles per hour, and his record speed is calculated to be around 27.8 miles per hour. It might not be as elegant as a human, but the cheetah bot sure can run. Watch it break the record in this disturbing yet exciting video demonstration.

How did the folks at Boston Dynamics accomplish this feat? According to IEEE Spectrum, it was apparently a matter of increasing the installed power and refining the control algorithms that coordinate the robot’s legs and back motion.

We’re a fair distance away from a future populated by killer robot cheetahs, though. The artificial quadruped is still dependent on off-board hydraulic power and a boom to keep it centered. Nonetheless, plans are currently in place to develop a new, untethered version capable of scurrying about outdoors.

DARPA program manager Gill Pratt explains that while “modelling the robot after a cheetah is evocative and inspiring,” the researchers aren’t looking to copy nature. “What DARPA is doing with its robotics programs is attempting to understand and engineer into robots certain core capabilities that living organisms have refined over millennia of evolution: efficient locomotion, manipulation of objects and adaptability to environments.”

And the ability to chase down and devour unsuspecting prey in a twinkling of an eye, of course.

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