MIT’s Cheetah 3 robot is built to save lives

The latest version of MIT’s Cheetah robot made
its stage debut today at TC Sessions: Robotics in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. It’s a familiar project to anyone who follows
the industry with any sort of regularity, as one of the most
impressive demos to come out of one of the world’s foremost
robotics schools in recent years. Earlier versions of the
four-legged robot have been able to run at speeds up to 14 miles an hour,
bound over objects autonomously and even
respond to questions with Alexa, by way of an
Echo Dot mounted on its back.

The Cheetah 3, however, marks a kind of
philosophical change for the robot created by professor
Sang-bae Kim and his team at MIT’s Biomimetics
. The focus has shifted from impressive demos to
something more practical — this time out, the team is focused
on giving the world a robot that can perform search and

“Our vision changed to wanting to use this in
a real situation, to dispatch it to Fukushima,” Kim told
TechCrunch ahead of the event. “We want to use this in a place
where we don’t want to use humans. We can use the robot to
monitor the environment and other emergency situations. There
are a lot of emergency situations where you just want to do a
routine check.”


Post-nuclear disaster Fukushima is often
brought up in these discussions around where industrial robots
can be useful in the real world, and indeed, a number of robots
have already been deployed to site, going where humans can’t —
or at least shouldn’t. iRobot/Endeavor’s Packbot has done some
work surveying the site, but the Cheetah 3 is able to do things
that more traditional wheeled robot isn’t, owing in part to its
animal-inspired, four-legged build.

“I’ve been fascinated by developing legged
machines, which can go where real machines cannot go,”
explained Kim. “As mankind, we’ve conquered air, water, ground
— all of these categories, but we conquered ground in a
different way. We modified the ground for our wheels.”

And it makes sense. It’s the same reason so
many roboticists continue to be drawn to human- and
animal-inspired robots. We’ve built our environment with us in
mind, so a robot drawing on similar evolutionary source
material will probably do a better job navigating around. In
the case of the Cheetah, that means walking around rubble and
upstairs. The company also demoed the new Cheetah’s ability
balance on three legs, using the fourth as a sort of makeshift
arm. It’s still in the early stages, but the team is working on
a dexterous hand that can perform complex hands like opening
doors — velociraptors eat your hearts out.

The new Cheetah design also makes it more
capable of carrying payloads — and if this is all starting to
sound like what Boston Dynamics has been working on with robots
like Big Dog, it’s no coincidence. Both projects were born out
of the same DARPA funding. Though, unlike Boston Dynamics’
work, Kim points out, the Cheetah project has used electric
motors (rather than hydraulics) all along. Though Boston
Dynamics introduced that functionality as well with the
Spot and Spot Mini.

Kim is careful to remind me that this is all
still early stages — after all, today’s event is Cheetah 3’s
big public debut. For now, however, the team is taking a more
pragmatic approach. “We’re doing the easy things first,” Kim
explained with a laugh. The robot is current being tested
across the MIT campus, traversing hills and walking up stairs.
Next year, the company will push the Cheetah even
returning the to the speed and jumping capabilities of earlier

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