Real cheetahs have flexible spines for ease of running, but it’s carbon fiber that supports MIT’s cheetah. The school’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab has created a robot inspired by and named after cheetahs that can run on batteries at speeds of more than 10 mph, jump about 16 inches high, land safely and continue galloping for at least 15 minutes, all while using less power than a microwave oven.
The research team had to design key elements from scratch because of a lack of or shortcomings in existing technology, including powerful, lightweight motors for each leg and an algorithm to determine the amount of force a leg should exert during the split second that it spends on the ground while running. The cheetah is controlled by an onboard computer that is also used to maneuver drones and ballistic missiles.
Another key element the team needed to carefully craft was the robot’s frame. The robot broke dozens of legs during test runs that were manufactured using 3-D printers and reinforced with Kevlar strips and carbon fiber. Eventually, the team found an ideal solution in a carbon fiber-and-foam sandwich frame. The strong, lightweight components make untethered running possible and absorb the forces generated by running and jumping.
The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with hopes that the robot will be able to be used in search and rescue operations in hazardous or hostile environments where it’s too risky to send a human rescuer. Researchers will continue to tweak the prototype to add additional sensors that would eventually make the robot autonomous.