If you've ever thought, "I wish the military would design a robot that runs and jumps like a cheetah," then your weirdest wishes have finally come true.
Researchers at MIT have received funding from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a cheetah-like robot that is capable of jumping over obstacles over 18 inches tall while running about 5 miles per hour, without any outside help or input from operators.
Real cheetahs are quite impressive, and these robots are no slouches either.
"A running jump is a truly dynamic behavior," MIT mechanical engineer Sangbae Kim said in a press release. "You have to manage balance and energy, and be able to handle impact after landing. Our robot is specifically designed for those highly dynamic behaviors."
Just like a real cheetah examines its environment in order to determine when and how it will jump, so does the robot. There are three different algorithms involved with making this decision.
First, a scanner reads the distance between the robot and the obstacle, as well as the height of the obstacle itself. A second algorithm determines how it needs to move its feet in order to position itself correctly for the jump. Finally, a third algorithm decides how quickly the legs need to thrust forward in order to make the jump over the obstacle. All of these decisions are made in real time, allowing the robo-cheetah to respond to obstacles just as a real animal would.
While the robot might not make the most efficient jump possible, it's still a darn good one. What it loses in accuracy, it gains in cutting the time it needs to make a decision.
"If you want to optimize for, say, energy efficiency, you would want the robot to barely clear the obstacle — but that's dangerous, and finding a truly optimal solution would take a lot of computing time. In running, we don't want to spend a lot of time to find a better solution. We just want one that's feasible, Kim continued. "We're too obsessed with optimal solutions. This is one example where you just have to be good enough, because you're running, and have to make a decision very quickly."
Don't worry, this robotic cheetah isn't designed to be weaponized or enslave the human race.
DARPA wants a robot that can cross over difficult terrain for search and rescue missions, like those that follow disasters, or to carry supplies where they are needed.
All of the tests thus far have been on hard ground, such as a treadmill or gym floor, but in the future the team will focus on real-world situations by having the robot maneuvering on softer terrain, like grass or sand.