MIT’s new mini cheetah robot can run, flip, and pronk

MIT's robotic mini cheetah does backflips and oh so much more
Photo: Bryce Vickmark/MIT

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory has done it again. Researchers have built a “virtually indestructible” mini cheetah robot that is capable of incredible feats of athleticism.

The new bot is powerful, nimble, fast, and turns heads wherever it goes. It also happens to be cute, which is perhaps the research team’s biggest win. At a time when anxiety is building over powerful artificial intelligence and next-gen robots, the mini cheetah is a welcome change of pace.  

Mini Cheetah or Olympic Athlete?

The mini cheetah has a few defining characteristics. The bot can run up to 2.45 meters per second (hence the name), trot, and pronk with relative ease. When kicked, the mini cheetah recovers quickly, even when put on its back.

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The bot’s legs are extremely flexible, enabling it to walk upside down and perform 360-degree backflips. It also absorbs falls well, can travel quickly on uneven terrain, and is able to contort its body in shocking ways.

Should any parts break, getting the mini cheetah back online is easy. Key components are relatively low cost and can be swapped out with little effort, a crucial element of the mini cheetah’s design. “You could put these parts together, almost like Legos,” said Benjamin Katz, the lead developer of the project on the project’s announcement page.

Moving Forward by Going Smaller

The mini cheetah is a redesign of a predecessor bot, the Cheetah 3, which was a much larger creation with custom parts and an integrated design. With the Cheetah 3, the MIT team had a much harder time addressing malfunctions or tweaking the design when desired.

The mini cheetah has small modular motors, like drones and other remote-controlled aircraft. In total, the bot has 12 motors, each with a stator, rotor, gearbox, controller, and a position sensor. Each leg has three degrees of freedom and a wide range of motion, giving the bot unprecedented movement capabilities.

Over time, the research team has added maneuvers to the mini cheetah’s repertoire. After training the bot to run, the group moved on to stretches and backflips. Next, Katz and company hope to program an even more complex movement—getting the mini cheetah to land on its feet no matter how it’s thrown.

The Next Achievement in a Growing Logbook

This isn’t the first time that MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab has impressed the world. Back in 2016, the MIT group revealed the HERMES project, an effort aimed at creating a humanoid robot that could be deployed in place of humans in dangerous situations. HERMES (Highly Efficient Robotic Mechanisms and Electromechanical System) responds to human reflexes through an intuitive teleoperation system.

Creations from other university labs have also gone viral in recent years. Boston Dynamics is no stranger to the spotlight as it continues to produce incredible robots, such as BigDog and Atlas, which can hike up hills and do parkour respectively. The Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology also recently revealed a robot that can install drywall.

Advances in robot skills, such as computer vision and image processing, will continue to create new possibilities for how humans and machines can work together in the future. If designed well, collaborative robots can have major impacts on many different sectors.

What’s Next for Mini Cheetah?

The MIT research team will present mini cheetah in May at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation. Until then, the team is building 10 more bots for use by other research labs.

“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 associate professor of mechanical engineering, Sangbae Kim. “That’s how you accelerate research.”

As robotics teams push forward and innovate, we’ll see more examples of crazy robots performing feats that we never thought possible, at least not this soon. Let’s just hope that researchers stick with robot animals and construction workers…