The U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has the unique mission of protecting national security by maintaining technological superiority.
If the new DARPA-funded "cheetah" robot is any indication, the agency is fulfilling this mission. This robot's movements are patterned after fast-running animals in nature, and it just set the record for the fastest legged robot in the world. Cheetah's 18-mph run demolished the old record of 13.1 mph set in 1989.
DARPA claims the use of robots in military operations has "already saves many lives and prevents thousands of other casualties." And yet, why does cheetah have to run so fast? When it comes to explosive-ordnance-disposal missions, for instance, slow and steady usually wins the race. DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program is developing machines with many different potential military applications, but the intended uses for Cheetah have not been revealed.
The cheetah you will see in the video below is still confined to a treadmill. Later this year a free-running prototype will be tested. Eventually DARPA hopes to get the robot up to 60-70 mph, the speed of an actual cheetah.
Watch the cheetah kick it up to 18 mph in the video below:
What's the Significance?
Beyond the military applications of a fast robot, which also can be controlled to chase and evade targets, there are many potential commercial uses. Witness this video, for instance, of a high-speed robotic hand at the 2009 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.
Robots like that one developed at the Ishikawa Oku Laboratory in Tokyo can spin a pen, fold cloth, and repeat other preplanned motions quickly. These robots still struggle with fast and dexterous (human) movement. That means if you work with your hands, your job might still be safe (for now). And yet, the sight of a robotic cheetah is an ominous one. It can outrun you, and time will only tell what other ways machines like this will be able to outmaneuver you.