MIT's Back-flipping "Mini Cheetah" Robot Is Lighter, Stealthier Than Ever

MIT says its new mini cheetah robot is springy, light on its feet, and weighs in at just 9 kilograms (20 pounds). Bryce Vickmark

Move over robo-dog, a new robotic star has been born. MIT just unveiled its uber dynamic back-flipping robot named for one of the stealthiest animals in the world.

“Mini Cheetah” evolved from its predecessor, the Cheetah 3. Now lighter and smaller with easily replaceable modular motors, the next level bot can trot over uneven surfaces at an average speed of about 8 kilometers (5 miles) per hour – twice as fast as a normal person can walk – and its creators believe it could go double that given a bit of fine-tuning.

“The rate at which it can change forces on the ground is really fast,” said lead developer Benjamin Katz, a technical associate in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, in a statement. “When it’s running, its feet are only on the ground for something like 150 milliseconds at a time, during which a computer tells it to increase the force on the foot, then change it to balance, and then decrease that force really fast to lift up. So, it can do really dynamic stuff, like jump in the air with every step, or run with two feet on the ground at a time. Most robots aren’t capable of doing this, so move much slower.”

Not only can it throw up a 360-degree backflip from a standing position, but the Mini Cheetah is also capable of righting itself with ninja-like maneuvers when kicked to the ground. Its electric motor design was reconfigured from a dozen Mason jar lid-sized motors used in drones and remote-controlled airplanes. Each leg has three motors that give it its huge range of motion, and all of its parts are relatively easy to put together – you know, if you’re a mechanical engineer.

“You could put these parts together, almost like Legos,” said Katz.

In testing, the Mini Cheetah was able to maneuver through campus hallways and the uneven ground outside. The team plans to present its design at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May. They plan on building an additional 10 machines to loan out to other labs so that other researchers have the opportunity to test out new algorithms and maneuvers.

“A big part of why we built this robot is that it makes it so easy to experiment and just try crazy things, because the robot is super robust and doesn’t break easily, and if it does break, it’s easy and not very expensive to fix,” said Katz.

“Eventually, I’m hoping we could have a robotic dog race through an obstacle course, where each team controls a mini cheetah with different algorithms, and we can see which strategy is more effective,” said Sangbae Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering. “That’s how you accelerate research.”

We’re currently taking wagers.



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