It's been a very little over a year since Boston Dynamics was awarded a contract to develop a high-speed robotic quadruped by DARPA, but already the defense tech research agency's investment is bearing fruit, having announced that its CHEETAH galloping quadruped robot has broken the land speed record for robots with legs.
A video released by DARPA appears to show CHEETAH running on a treadmill at speeds of up to 18 mph (29 km/h), a speed which smashes the previous record of 13.1 mph (21 km/h) with an improvement of more than a third. The toppled champion is MIT's Planar Biped, whose alternating gait set the prior standard in 1989.
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Though the robot might more resemble a frightened rabbit when galloping at full tilt, DARPA claims CHEETAH has more in common with the cheetah than name alone, taking its cues from the big cat and other fast-running animals by flexing its back to increase stride and speed.
One thing to note is that CHEETAH is currently dependent on off-board hydraulics for power (hence the need for a treadmill). Considering this fact, as well as that running seems to be CHEETAH's only ability, "robot" is being used in a loose sense by DARPA, unable as the machine is to sense its environment or act autonomously. However, it's hoped that an untethered free-running prototype will be tested later in the year, so CHEETAH is taking steps towards autonomy.
The military hopes that improved robot mobility will enable robots to assist across a broader range of missions, and DARPA's M3 program (Maximum Mobility and Manipulation) of which CHEETAH is apart is working towards precisely that.
Of course, CHEETAH has some way to go before it challenges the record of its namesake, the cheetah - itself the land speed record holder for animals, reaching speeds of up to 70 mph (113 km/h) over short stretches.
You can see the CHEETAH in motion and breaking records in the video below.