There are a few humans alive who can outrun the new DARPA-funded Cheetah robot; if your name isn’t Usain Bolt, however, chances are you’re not one of them. This robot can reach speeds of up to 18 mph, breaking the old record of 13 mph set by a bipedal robot 22 years ago at MIT.
Technically, Cheetah isn’t capable of running down any humans yet. Its creators at Boston Dynamics — the company who also created BigDog and PETMAN — still have it running on a treadmill connected to an off-board power source. Creating a robot that can run fast in an open field will be a much bigger challenge.
“Our approach is to get the basic concept and scientific solution working in the lab in a simplified setting, then do the system integration needed to get the machine outdoors,” Marc Raibert, founder of Boston Dynamics, wrote TIME.com in an email. “So getting a system with onboard power is a key element, especially for a robot with an articulated back, which doesn’t leave much space for components.”
Not only is there very little space for a battery, that battery would have to hold enough juice to meet the demands of a robot with incredible energy needs. Still, the researchers — led by Dr. Alfred Rizzi — expect to test a free-standing version of the robot by the end of the year.
Cheetah’s secret is that it can flex and unflex its articulated back in coordination with its back legs. While it can reach 18 mph, the goal of the project isn’t to create a new breed of lightning fast robots to chase people down; it’s to improve on the sluggish top speed of today’s free-standing robots, which, according to Raibert, ranges between 5 mph to 10 mph.
The idea is to eventually create a robot that can venture quickly across terrain too bumpy or steep for wheeled machines. Right now, Boston Dynamics’ robots have great balance, but that doesn’t do much good if they putt along with the urgency of a senior citizen on a motorized scooter.
Boston Dynamics isn’t the only lab working on speedy robots. DARPA’s FastRunner project is developing an ostrich-like robot that it hopes will one day reach speeds of 20 mph.
So, how fast could robots eventually run?
“That is a tough question,” writes Raibert. “We are hoping for 30+ mph. Don’t know how long that will take; hopefully less than another 22 years.”