Today’s robots move about as fast as your grandma’s morning mall-walking group. Tomorrow’s robots will move as fast as Usain Bolt — all thanks to limbs modeled on ostrich legs.
That’s exactly the point, according to the Darpa-funded researchers behind a collaborative effort underway at MIT and the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC). Only one year into a four-year research contract, the team is showing off stunning results that are expected to produce the fastest, most agile ‘bot ever. He’s called FastRunner, and he’ll zip along at 10 times the speed of a standard mobile robot, which clocks a mere 3 miles per hour.
“We’re using principles found in biology to build efficiency and speed right into the robot,” Johnny Godowski, a research associate at IHMC, tells Danger Room. “And we’re confident that this will open up the possibility for humanoid robots that are useful in all sorts of situations — military for one, but also fire rescues or natural disasters, for example.”
Already, the team has developed a simulation of FastRunner’s eventual capabilities and a full test leg that can zip along at 27 miles an hour — the same pace as Usain Bolt’s record-setting 2009 sprint. Eventually, they hope to see the ‘bot hit speeds in excess of “30, 40, 50 miles an hour,” according to Dr. Russ Tedrake at MIT.
“We’re really excited to show off what FastRunner can do,” Godowski tells Danger Room. “This doesn’t just mean one fast robot. It means we’ve developed the architecture for all sorts of robots, humanoid robots for example, to maneuver and show off impressive agility at high speeds.”
In the future, that architecture could be applied to any ‘bot body. The team’s leg design relies on a locking knee, a single motor per leg (which reduces the weight of each leg and maximizes efficiency) and springs that can store energy and then release it to allow the robot to sustain a powerful pace. All of those elements, they say, can be applied to four-legged or humanoid robots. Not to mention that the ‘bot’s design allows it to clamber over obstacles, race up a flight of stairs or scurry up and down hills, while carrying as hefty a load of gear as its legs will support without using much battery power — meaning missions and payloads can be expanded to be useful in real-life situations.
“The architecture takes zero energy to carry weight,” Godowski says. “The legs lock and unlock, a lot like a folding table, to support what we imagine will be quite a lot of mass when the prototype is finished … really, as much as the legs will hold.”
Obviously, FastRunner will be speedier and more agile than the most athletic of humans, let alone a soldier loaded down with gear. But it’s a mystery how FastRunner will compare to Atlas, the cheetah-bot being designed by the veteran robo-geniuses over at Boston Dynamics: Researchers haven’t released the cheetah’s anticipated speeds, but did boast that it’d be “faster than any existing legged robot and faster than the fastest human runners.”