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DARPA emergency response robot runs faster than the fastest human

DARPA's Cheetah

A robot under development by the U.S. Defense Department that could be used in a variety of applications, including emergency response missions, can run faster than the fastest human, recently reaching almost 30 miles per hour on a laboratory treadmill.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Cheetah managed to reach 28.3 mph, said the agency on Sept. 5. The speed is a little faster than the fastest human, Usain Bolt, who set the human world speed record when he reached a peak speed of 27.78 mph in 2009 during a 100-meter sprint. The Cheetah robot had already attained the record as the fastest robot on earth when it clocked in at 18 mph earlier in its development, said DARPA.

Bolt set the world speed record for a human in 2009 when he reached a peak speed of 27.78 mph for a 20-meter split during the 100-meter sprint, said DARPA. The agency said it recently clocked Cheetah at 28.3 mph for a 20-meter split. It said the robot had the equivalent of a 28.3 Mph tailwind on its treadmill, giving it a slight advantage, but used most of its power to swing and lift its legs fast enough, not to propel itself forward.

DARPA said it is developing Cheetah to contribute to emergency response, humanitarian assistance and other defense missions, because it needs a robot that can handle difficult terrain. More traditional wheeled and tracked rough-terrain robots can’t handle extremely difficult terrain that requires legs that can step over high obstacles as well as deep ditches. 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, said DARPA. Legged robots that don’t sacrifice speed for mobility on rough terrain, it said.

Cheetah is part of DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program run by Boston Dynamics, which was awarded a $10 million defense department contract to develop another humanoid disaster response robot in August. One of the M3 program’s main goals is to enhance robot movement and capabilities in natural and degraded manmade environments where defense personnel often operate, said the agency.

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

The current version of the Cheetah robot, said DARPA, is powered by an off-board hydraulic pump and uses a boom-like device to keep it running in the center of the treadmill. Researchers attributed the increase in speed since results since last March to improved control algorithms and a more powerful pump. The robot, said DARPA, has a ways to go before it can come close to matching the speeds of its living, breathing cheetah namesake which are the fastest land animals on earth, reaching speeds of up to 70 mph.

“Modeling the robot after a cheetah is evocative and inspiring, but our goal is not 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,” said Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager. “Cheetahs happen to be beautiful examples of how natural engineering has created speed and agility across rough terrain. 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. 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.”