MIT Researchers Teach a Robotic Cheetah to Run and Jump On its Own


Photo Courtesy of Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

Photo Courtesy of Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

Leave it to researchers from MIT to come up with a complex algorithm that’s specific to predatory motions like running, leaping, and bounding that can be programmed into a robot that looks like a beast from the wild.

In a recent video posted by MIT News, members from the school’s Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory showed off what they call a “robotic cheetah,” a life-like machine that can mimic specific movements of the fastest feline on earth without the help of tethers or ropes to support its body weight.

“The general goal of our lab is to understand the locomotion aspect of animals,” said Sangbae Kim, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “We are trying to understand how they efficiently run in the field and nature, so we can take that inspiration and use it in our engineering world…to create prosthetic legs out of that technology, or make a new transportation so you can replace cars so you don’t need the road in our world.”

By coming up with the algorithm, which relied on a force-based approach similar to how world-class sprinters push themselves forward when racing, the robot is able to leap over a foot in the air when an obstacle is placed in its path.

To see just what the robotic cheetah was capable of, developers of the algorithm took the metal cat out for a test run on MIT’s Killian Court. They also tested it on an indoor track, where it reached speeds of up to 10 m.p.h. as it propelled itself forward on all fours. Researchers believe that with the right tweaks they can one day get the robot to triple its top speed.

“I think this is a really exciting future where robots can be quiet, and efficient, and also powerful,” said Kim of the robot, which is comprised of specially-built motors and parts developed by a team of engineers from the school.

The group’s research was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the same agency responsible for other high-tech machines that are capable of performing real-life tasks.

Waltham-based Boston Dynamics, which was acquired by Google last year, has also been working on robots with animalistic tendencies similar to the cheetah at MIT.

The makers of the leaping cheetah will present their findings at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Chicago this week.