To Create Faster Robots, Scientists are Studying Cheetahs

In designing a new and faster type of robot, researchers at the City College of New York are taking a cue from the speediest land mammal on Earth: the cheetah.

By using soft materials and mimicking the motion of a cheetah’s spine, the researchers were able to create a robot that can run three times faster than previous soft robots. Their design concept could someday be used for search-and-rescue technology or industrial manufacturing.

Professor Hao Su and Mechanotronics Laboratory Director Tzu-Hao Huang, both of CCNY, were authors on the paper, published in Science Advances.

Robots made of soft materials are generally slower than rigid robots, but the researchers overcame this by looking to animal anatomy. When a cheetah runs, its spine switches between flexion and extension at high speeds. The researchers recreated this effect by building a robot with air channels on either side of a spring-loaded ‘spine.’ Pumping air through the channels, which are housed in a soft, flexible material, causes this same flexion and extension and is akin to the cheetah flexing its muscles.

The design allows the robot to gallop, which is a high-speed and energy-efficient gait, compared to previous soft-bodied robots that used crawling motions. Switching the robots’ feet out for fins, the researchers also showed that their design can swim faster than other soft robots.

Robots made of soft, flexible materials are better suited to certain tasks than their rigid counterparts. For instance, Su and Huang’s robots can work together to grasp and lift delicate objects. Soft robots are also attractive to engineers because they can deal better with harsh environments than brittle ones, and are safer and more comfortable for human use.