See Cheetah jump! MIT’s robot leaps over obstacles

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It’s a giant leap for a robot and a moment of terror for mankind.

It seemed like only yesterday that MIT’s four-legged robot called Cheetah was ambling around MIT’s Killian Court untethered. But after conferring freestyle running abilities to the robot, researchers have gone on to train the hunk of metal to take running jumps over foot-tall hurdles.

In a new video released this week, the quadruped can be seen bounding across an empty gymnasium and faultlessly clearing obstacles that are 18 inches tall.

Jokes aside, getting robots to act like agile wild cats is very, very hard. “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,” MIT professor Sangbae Kim said in a statement.

Last year, the group presented data after Cheetah completed trials on a treadmill. The robot cleared obstacles 70 percent of the time, according to MIT News. But on an open track, with more space to prepare for the jump, it was successful 90 percent of the time.

These maneuvers are not tele-operated. As the robot approaches and detects a hurdle, algorithms plan its jumping trajectory unaided by its minders, each adjusting for the speed and position of the robot and the height of the hurdle.

Kim and his team at the Biomimetic Robotics Lab are due to demo the robot at the DARPA Robotics Challenge in June, and present their engineering techniques to their academic peers in July at the Science and Systems robotics conference. 

Boston residents can take comfort in the fact that the city is turning into a stronghold for all kinds of robots with life-skills — local company Boston Dynamics is also working on a quadruped that imitates the running motion of wild cats. (Taking a creative leap themselves, its creators named it “WildCat.”) Speed is its strength — this robot can hit 16 miles per hour running on a battery pack.

Earlier this year Boston Dynamics showed the world that their quadrupeds didn’t just jog along with their owner — they could keep running even if they were kicked strongly in the side. Besides preparing the bots for a future in which it is okay to be cruel to your mechanical companion, it also shows that have a remarkably stable design that will keep them from toppling in gusts of wind.

In yet another episode of science imitating life, a different group at MIT has been training a Boston Dynamics two-legged humanoid robot called Atlas for a robotics contest that DARPA is holding next week. In a demonstration this month, the team showed how Atlas was able to pick up a phone and hold it to its ear, open and enter a door, and drill a hole with a power drill. Just yesterday, the team released this video of Atlas driving a car.

The unanswered question: Will either WildCat or Cheetah Bot be humanoid’s best friend?

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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