DARPA's Cheetah robot (credit DARPA)

Cheetah robot outruns Usain Bolt

A Cheetah robot funded by the US Pentagon has set a new world speed record for robotic running.

Usain Bolt set the world speed record for a human in 2009 when he reached a peak speed of 27.78mph for a 20m split during the 100m sprint, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Cheetah, developed by robotics company Boston Dynamics and backed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), reached 28.3mph for a 20m split on a treadmill, beating its own land speed record of 18mph.

The Cheetah had a slight advantage over Bolt as it ran on a treadmill, the equivalent of a 28.3mph tail wind, but most of the power Cheetah used was to swing and lift its legs fast enough, not to propel itself forward.

“Modeling the robot after a cheetah is evocative and inspiring, but our goal is not to copy nature,” said Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager.

"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.

“Cheetahs happen to be beautiful examples of how natural engineering has created speed and agility across rough terrain.“

Cheetah is being developed and tested under DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program by Boston Dynamics.

One of the program’s main goals is to enhance robot movement and capabilities in natural and degraded manmade environments where defence personnel often operate.

DARPA said that a robot must negotiate difficult terrain so it can contribute to emergency response, humanitarian assistance and other defence missions.

Most rough-terrain robots use wheels or tracks to ride over bumps, however the most difficult terrain demands the use of legs, as legs can step over both high obstacles and deep ditches.

DARPA added that coordinating the swing and lift of mechanical legs is more difficult than making wheels turn or tracks roll, and previous legged robots have been slow compared to wheeled or tracked ones. 

The research agency wants to create legged robots that do not have to sacrifice speed for mobility on rough terrain.

DARPA intends to test a prototype on natural terrain next year, but for now Cheetah runs on a treadmill in a lab to allow researchers to monitor its progress, refine algorithms and maintain its moving parts. 

"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," added Pratt.

"What we gain through Cheetah and related research efforts are technological building blocks that create possibilities for a whole range of robots suited to future Department of Defense missions.”

The current version of the Cheetah robot is powered by an off-board hydraulic pump and uses a boom-like device to keep it running in the centre of the treadmill. 

DARPA said the increase in speed since results were last reported in March earlier this year was due to improved control algorithms and a more powerful pump. 

However, the robot has some way to go before it can match the speed of its namesake.

The Cincinnati Zoo’s cheetah, Sarah, was recently clocked at 61mph.

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