Boston Dynamics Robot Cheetah Outruns Swiftest Human

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Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah robot sprinting on the treadmill.

Usain Bolt, the fastest human in history, has been outpaced by a robot.

Catchy hook, huh? Fact is, Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah was outrunning the rest of us six months ago when it clocked its then record-breaking 18 mph. Now, a mere six months on, the Cheetah has shattered its own record—better algorithms and more power pushed it to 28.3 mph.

The real wonder is how quickly the company moved from vague conceptual sketch to super speedy prototype.

Check out the Cheetah in its natural habitat here:

The Cheetah first hit headlines in late February 2011. Boston Dynamics had won its latest contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with a vague sketch and a big promise—to run faster than the fastest human. A year later the firm’s working prototype broke the 1989 robotic speed record of 13.1 mph when it ran 18 mph. And now it’s faster than Usain Bolt.

Boston Dynamics made this sketch into a functional 28.3 mph robot in 18 months.

Upping the Cheetah’s speed isn’t simply about power—it’s about  conquering the complexity of a four-legged animal’s stride. Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager says, “Our cheetah bot borrows ideas from nature’s design to inform stride patterns, flexing and unflexing of parts like the back, placement of limbs and stability.” Getting that complicated series of steps to flow together is no mean feat.

The robot’s speed is impressive, but there are caveats aplenty. The Cheetah still runs on a treadmill, supported by a boom and powered by an offboard hydraulic pump. It’s a fragile-looking jumble of wires, hardly prepared for its first 30 mph wipeout.

Nevertheless, Boston Dynamics says they’ll begin testing an outdoor version of the Cheetah called the WildCat in early 2013.

How can the firm move from the lab to the real world in just a few months? It’ll build on already proven technology—the Cheetah isn’t the firm’s first headline hogging robot.

DARPA is funding Boston Dynamics to create a line of tough robots to partner with soldiers and go where wheeled or treaded vehicles can’t. Earlier web sensations include BigDog, AlphaDog, PETMAN, and SandFlea, among others.

BigDog can travel over very rough terrain (snow, mud, rocks, hillsides) righting itself as it goes. PETMAN can perform complex motions (push up, squat and turn, or kneel) and likewise can adapt on the fly. Why not the WildCat?

Boston Dynamics hopes to begin testing the WildCat outdoors by early 2013

The conceptual sketch of the WildCat indicates it will have an onboard motor and a rugged cage to protect the electronics. Meanwhile, the robot’s flexible spine is designed so it can “zigzag to chase and evade.” Agility at its lab demonstrated speed could make for a pretty fearsome ‘bot in the field.

Ultimately, Boston Dynamics hopes the Cheetah’s offspring will manuever at speeds of 50 mph and more. DARPA aims to use them in rough terrain for “emergency response, humanitarian assistance, and other defense missions.”

Whatever the military uses, Boston Dynamics continues to push the envelope with its robotic creations. The techniques they’re learning now could very well find commercial or private applications in future robotic beasts of burden—lightening the load for us humans at home and work.

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • Tracy R. Atkins September 10, 2012 on 11:40 am

    I think it’s interesting, telling even, that they use hydraulics instead of electronic actuators or other electric means to simulate a muscle system. The control of this precision system is utterly impressive. I will be curious to see what miniaturization techniques they use to make this thing autonomous.

  • irishinvenice September 10, 2012 on 1:08 pm

    Could they develop a horse type one that I could ride to work?

    • Tracy R. Atkins irishinvenice September 10, 2012 on 1:16 pm

      HA! Awesome!
      One hundred years of the automobile replacing the horse, and now we are back to replacing the automobile, with a robotic horse (or cheetah). Now we know why biology selected legs instead of wheels.

      -Tracy

      • irishinvenice Tracy R. Atkins September 11, 2012 on 2:56 am

        Much cooler than a motorbike, and perhaps it could reach speeds of up to 75 mph :)

        • Tracy R. Atkins irishinvenice September 11, 2012 on 8:10 am

          Oh, i agree. I like the idea of “go anywhere”. Have you ever seen the “Timberjack walking log harvesting machine?” That thing, though a decade old, really does show just what kind of terrain you can conquer, and how small of an ecological footprint that walking has over rolling.

      • Sunshine2047 Tracy R. Atkins September 13, 2012 on 12:15 am

        wheel for highway, legs for off-road

  • turtles_allthewaydown September 21, 2012 on 3:10 pm

    This is quite a ways from a self-contained system that can navigate uneven terrain. But there are folks working on that too (like the Big Dog project), so I’m sure we won’t have to wait too long.

  • collincsuy October 28, 2014 on 9:20 pm

    Forgive my possible misunderstanding, but if the track is going from left to right, then I would be facing to the left if I were running on that treadmill. It seems to me that the cheetah’s hind legs are on the left, so it looks to me like the cheetah is running backwards.