MIT's 'Blind Cheetah' Robot Could Be Used to Rescue People in Disaster Zones

MIT scientists think a robot that moves like a cheetah could help rescue people in disaster zones. It’s blind, but scientists designed its flexible joints and agile limbs to be just as versatile as any creature found in nature.

“There are a range of situations where you don’t want to send a human, but you can send a robot,” the robot's designer, Sangbae Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, told Newsweek.

He explained how the mechanical beast, aptly names the Cheetah 3, is different from all other similar technologies. As the third prototype scientists have developed, this one can leap and gallop across rough terrain, climb a staircase littered with debris and quickly recover its balance when suddenly yanked or pushed, all while essentially blind. Kim anticipates the robot will be used in war zones and could be sent into power plants during potential disasters. 

“There are many unexpected behaviors the robot should be able to handle without relying too much on vision,” said Kim in a statement. “Vision can be noisy, slightly inaccurate and sometimes not available, and if you rely too much on vision, your robot has to be very accurate in position and eventually will be slow. So we want the robot to rely more on tactile information. That way, it can handle unexpected obstacles while moving fast.”

This robot has sophisticated motor skills. An algorithm helps the mechanical creature determine the best time to transition a leg between a swing and a step, by constantly calculating the probabilities of each legs' movement.

Cheetah 3 is a 90-pound robot that resembles the frame of a Rottweiler and can run 13 feet per second, a carefully calculated speed, slow enough so the device remains stable when moving. It can apply force and detect when it needs to apply pressure to perform a certain task.

“If humans close our eyes and make a step, we have a mental model for where the ground might be, and can prepare for it. But we also rely on the feel of touch of the ground,” said Kim. “We are sort of doing the same thing.”

Scientists decided to design the machine with four legs for practical purposes since four legs are more agile, said Kim.

The ‘cheetah’ can be given commands, like “go forward” or “turn left.”  It mostly knows how to navigate by itself thanks to complicated computer software.

“It’s mostly autonomous, but human guided,” said Kim.

Kim says this is the first robot built to operate smoothly in all terrains, and the scientists hope it will pave the way for robots to function with the same dexterity as humans.

“The entire world is moving in that direction,” said Kim. He explained that as the world's population ages, there will be a labor crisis that can only be solved by robots. “This is a must-need technology. It is something we absolutely need.”

It’s true that the world’s older population is growing at a rapid pace. As of 2016, 8.5 percent of people worldwide were age 65 or older. The National Institutes of Health predicts that this percentage will jump to nearly 17 percent by 2050.

“We are going to have a lack of labor to take care of those people,” Kim said. “Replacing some part of the human function is going to be very far in the future, but this is something that we have to develop because we are going to have to face [the aging population] in 20 years or so.”

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