Sangbae Kim has built the robot of the future, and it runs on four legs.
Called the “cheetah-bot,” the robot was created at the Biomimetics Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (“Biomimetics” is building something that imitates nature.) As can be expected from its name, it is modeled after the animal world’s fastest predator, with a cheetah’s powerful torso and slender legs.
It’s not as speedy as the spotted cats it imitates: The robot tops out at about 13 miles per hour, while real cheetahs can run almost five times as fast. But when the cheetah-bot bounds across MIT’s grassy lawn, it looks almost like a real cheetah hunting in the wild.
This machine is more than just a cool feat of engineering, said Kim, who is the director of the biomimetics lab. It’s also an important step in building a new kind of robot.
As Kim explained it, most robots that have been built either move on wheels or don’t move at all. That means they are limited in where they can go and what they can do. Even self-driving cars, for example, aren’t of much use without smooth, flat roads on which to travel.
“The next challenge is how to bring these robots outside,” Kim said.
He wanted to develop a machine that could perform rescue missions — during disasters such as earthquakes or fires — that would be too dangerous for humans. He knew a traditional robot on wheels would never work: It would get stuck at the first big rock. The ideal rescue robot would need to have legs.
Since Kim specializes in biomimetics, he looked to nature for a solution to that challenge. After all, animals have been evolving for millions of years. Cheetahs’ bodies are perfectly designed to run, jump and navigate narrow spaces.
“Millions of years of evolution allowed them to be so optimum, whereas we’ve only been working on robotics barely 50 years,” Kim said. “So we can steal a lot of ideas from nature that we can apply . . . to speed up our engineering evolution.”
With funding from the Defense Department, Kim and his team spent four years developing the cheetah-bot. Many of the components had to be developed from scratch, such as the battery-powered lightweight motors that make the robot run and the computer program that tells its legs how to move.
Other elements are borrowed from technologies even kids can use: for instance, the controller for operating the robot, which comes from an Xbox.
For Kim, who has been working in the field of biomimetics since 2004, watching the cheetah-bot run outdoors for the first time was a high point in his career.
But he’s nowhere near finished. The MIT researchers have plans to make the cheetah-bot even faster and to give it “eyes” in the form of visual sensors that will allow it to see obstacles and react to them.
“When it started running . . . I felt like, ‘Wow, that’s a partial achievement of my long-lasting dreams,’ ” Kim said. “But I don’t feel like I’ve achieved all of it. Not yet.”