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Big defense budgets during the aughts financed the deployment of thousands of robots, including unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s fascination with robots hasn’t slackened even in these more austere times. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is funding Boston Dynamics’ development of a prototype robot called the Cheetah. On March 5, the company announced that the cat-like bot managed to gallop 18 mph on a treadmill, setting a new land speed record for legged robots. (The previous record: 13.1 mph, set at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989.) Here’s the video in all its Rise of the Machines creepiness. Or coolness. Your call.
Boston Dynamics, a 1992 spinoff from MIT that’s headed by Marc Raibert, has also developed a quadrupedal pack robot called the Legged Squad Support System (LS3). And in a move sure to wig out elements of the singularity movement, the company has a prototype human-like robot in the works called the Atlas that can walk upright and use its hands for balance while squeezing through narrow passages on surveillance or emergency rescue missions.
As for the Cheetah, Raibert thinks the cat-bot could clock speeds of nearly 40 mph once key design and technical features are further refined. “We’ve solved a lot of the engineering problems,” he says. Raibert declined to say when such a technology would be ready for the battlefield, but he says this sort of machine could someday serve as a “scout robot” and “maybe deliver some payload.” This kind of machine could also be useful in emergency rescue and civilian disasters, the company says.
In the latest speed test, the Cheetah was tethered to a hydraulic pump for power and relied on a boom-like device to help maintain balance. “It’s a lot like training wheels,” says Raibert. Those come off later this year when Boston Dynamics will start testing a free-running robot that will have an internal gas-powered engine and software capable of handling 3D movements. The Boston Dynamics research team is working with Dr. Alan Wilson, an expert on the dynamics of fast-running animals at London’s Royal Veterinary College.
While the Cheetah won’t be combat-ready for some time, its technology may be more immediately useful in improving other Boston Dynamics bots. Last month Darpa announced it had started field testing Boston Dynamics LS3 pack-bot, including the ability to carry 400 lbs on a 20-mile trek in 24 hours without being refueled.