Machine Beats Man - "We are living at a time when the rate of change has never been this fast and will never be this slow again,”
Machine Beats Man - Meet the super robots
that are about to lap the world's fastest humans.
By David WilsonOct 16, 2019
You probably picture robots as clodhoppers: ponderous, clunky,
even doddery droids that need caffeine, badly. But robots are on the brink of
making giant strides. Just ask Columbia University engineering professor Hod
Lipson, who writes in Nature that
“young animals gallop across fields, climb trees, and immediately find their
feet with grace after they fall”—and robots are set to follow suit.
Lipson is right. A new breed of speedy robots promises to
eventually outdo the runners at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Notable cybernetic
contenders include MIT’s dominant Cheetah,
Boston Dynamics’ Petman and Handle,
Michigan Robotics’ MABEL,
and—further afield in South Africa—the University of Cape Town’s Baleka.
Plus, that efficiency-geared Florida University powerhouse, the
Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC), fields a smart, sensor-free
biped plainly called Planar
Elliptical Runner (PER). The Verge frames
PER as “all mechanics,” meaning less technical cunning is needed to keep it
A single motor at PER’s core drives its legs in an elliptical or oval motion
that makes for inherent stability, so it avoids falling forward or backward.
Torsion springs generate added power in PER’s legs, making it still more
steady. The paragon of dynamic geometry is unencumbered by any power-hungry,
number-crunching processor that gauges steps in line with sensor data.
The slick mover does 12 miles per hour (mph) on a treadmill, which
is faster than it sounds. After all, the fastest
(official) marathon ever run, by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge in Berlin in
2018, unfolded at a clip of 13 mph.
That said, IHMC pacesetter HexRunner has clocked a world-beating 32.2 miles per
hour, edging the previous record of 28.3 miles per hour, held by
MIT’s four-legged trailblazer, Cheetah, which riffs on the cat that can hit
69.5 mph in just three seconds, aided by the length of its legs, spine, and
tail that lets it balance, National Geographic says.
Radically different in looks from MIT’s mechanical cat, the wheel-based
HexRunner is almost 6 feet tall. Armed with two sets of three spokes set either
side of a hub, it rolls along like tumbleweed by spinning both, so whenever one
of its six feet leaves the ground, another touches down.
Just like PER, Big Hex is all about sharp design. In this
IHMC Senior Research Scientist Jerry Pratt says his team is striving to achieve
fast, graceful locomotion marred by minimal feedback, amid general plodding
“With most running and walking robots we have a lot of sensors,
and about a thousand times a second we read what the sensors are doing,” Pratt
says in the video. “We do a lot of computation to figure out what the actuators
should be doing.”
Then, he adds, the actuators that turn energy into motion must be
given just the right pulse of power. “And we have to do that really quickly or
the robot will fall down."
In contrast, HexRunner operates mechanically, smoothly reliant on
springs and linkages.
“All the feedback mechanisms happen physically,” Pratt says in the
clip. “So, instead of having to do a lot of computation to have a lot of
sensing as you squeeze the throttle on the RC remote, it speeds up the motor,
gives more power to the motor —and just based on the dynamics and the geometry
of the mechanism, the robot’s stable."
The catch is its wheel undermines its cybernetic Futurama credentials,
giving it the air of a contraption. In contrast, HexRunner’s fractionally
slower cousin, FastRunner, which does 27 mph, has two
forked feet. “We are inspired by ostriches and other fast-running birds, which
can run very quickly and seemingly effortlessly,” Pratt tells Popular
A compelling reason to build fleet-footed robots like FastRunner
is to gain a better grasp of nimble animals, Pratt says.
“Often, results from robotics research are influential to the work
of biologists in understanding animals—and vice versa,” he says, raising the
specter of bio-inspired devices such as Harvard University’s octopus-like Octobot and
the Swiss-built smart salamander Pleurobot,
which walks and swims.
Understanding animals makes building better robots easier, Pratt
says. In real-world applications such as search-and-rescue missions, speed is
“But also, similar to making fast cars for racing, the technology
and understanding that we develop for achieving really fast running robots will
be useful for moderately fast robots to become very reliable, efficient, and
safe,” says Pratt.
With its ability to top 30 mph, HexRunner is his institute’s
fastest cybernetic performer, from one perspective. “However, the robot looks
more like a wheel than a bird. So, even though it has all the main features of
a running robot, not everyone is willing to call it a running robot,” Pratt
More like a conventional robot, his bipedal planar model PER apparently
evokes the most potential, because its brisk pace is achieved despite it being
just 2 feet tall. Pratt believes his team can make a leggy, planar robo-bird
that outruns an ostrich. That is fast; as the fastest
animal on two legs, an ostrich can accelerate like an Audi and hit 45 mph.
“However,” Pratt says of a projected planar super-bird, “it would
probably run out of batteries in less than an hour. While our robots can be
pretty efficient, they’re still far from being as amazingly efficient as
Mechanically, he says, running robots are hindered by available
motors’ limited oomph. Air resistance, which stiffens at speed, and the extent
to which structure can be strengthened, also thwart development.
“However, all of these are practical limits based on available
technologies. We know of no theoretical limits to running speed—except for the
speed of light of course,” Pratt says.
Meanwhile, MIT’s Cheetah has
proven capable of reaching 28.3 mph, faster than the land speed record of 27.8 mph set by
running legend Usain Bolt. Mind you, Cheetah busted the record with
the aid of perfect, turbulence-free conditions, running indoors on a treadmill,
propelled by a giant remote power supply. Another inbuilt advantage Cheetah has
is its PER-like refined, efficient design.
“In treadmill tests, the researchers have found that the
robot—about the size and weight of an actual cheetah—wastes very little energy
as it trots continuously for up to an hour and a half at 5 mph,” the original
2013 Cheetah press release states. “The key to the robot’s streamlined
stride: lightweight electric motors, set into its shoulders, that produce high
torque with very little heat wasted.
Cheetah remains a benchmark for speed. Again, the rub is its
resemblance to a mishmash of
batteries, gears, and motors, noted by analyst Kendall Costello in a
September 2014 post for the children’s science hub Dogonews.
Enter Cheetah’s more life-like cousin, WildCat,
which is billed as the world’s fastest quadruped robot.
The brainchild of MIT spinoff Boston Dynamics, WildCat was funded by the
defense department’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation Initiative, or M3.
WildCat travels at a fairly fast pace: 32 km/h, or just under 20 mph on flat
terrain while sustaining a galloping gait like
that of a horse or dog. To maintain traction and balance, WildCat leans into turns.
WildCat is propelled by a raucous, methanol-fueled motor that
drives a hydraulic actuation system reliant on pressurized fluid. WildCat
braces its trajectory through methods such as “proprioception,” or awareness of
body position and movement, and “visual odometry,” or camera image analysis.
Additionally, WildCat’s laser range finders gauge its distance above the
Despite its four-legged, feline look, like Cheetah, the hi-tech
pacesetter could apparently use sharper design. “Though it was able to achieve
impressive speeds, WildCat’s massive gasoline engine made it very noisy and
clunky, and therefore not of much practical use,” Dogonews wrote.
Boston Dynamics’ rival statuesque military device Petman (Protection
Ensemble Test Mannequin) breaks the cybernetic sprinter mold with its human
shape that lends it to testing chemical protection clothing. Petman is also
expected to pursue search-and-rescue operations in hazardous conditions
including fires adroitly.
Petman’s top walking speed of 4.4 mph may
seem only mildly impressive, but it moves as dynamically as a real person, says
the military content hub Army Technology.
Additionally, Petman looks vigorous and
capable of more, like the relentless, fictional T-800 Terminator.
Spry real-world humanoid Mabel,
which was made by the University of Michigan’s neatly named Legged Locomotion
Lab, is no longer in the race, but notable for being crowned the fastest
bipedal robot with knees in 2011. Emphasizing her agility, Mabel had a “trip
reflex” and could effectively run a 9-minute mile at
“Watching her strut her stuff around a little indoor track in the
video above, you’ll notice the springing motion of her legs, which is very
similar to a human running—both spend about 40 [percent] of their time in the
air,” CBS journalist Veronique Greenwood wrote. Now retired, Mabel passively
graces the biomechanics
exhibit at that touted “journey of discovery across time,” the
Chicago Field Museum.
The world’s first legged running robot meant for public commercial
release, the crowdfunded OutRunner never left the
blocks, despite reaching the alpha development stage and promising
much. Branded “wickedly fast” by Gizmodo,
the star-shaped, two-legged marvel was meant to eat up competitors.
OutRunner’s alleged talents included the capacity to run up to 20 mph on almost
any terrain—asphalt, grass or dirt. “By having a center of mass lower than the
leg axis of rotation, OutRunner robots exploit a buoyancy effect, making them
inherently stable and eliminating the need for expensive sensors and complex
control algorithms,” the pitch said.
Regardless, OutRunner failed to inspire enough zeal and take-up.
Its Kickstarter campaign
raised just $62,271, less than half of its $150,000 goal. The website of the
Florida company that conjured up the populist bot, Robots Unlimited,
Now, the most exciting new talent on the athletic cybernetic block
may be the University of Cape Town’s two-legged newcomer, Baleka,
whose name means “sprint” in Zulu.
“There is so much being done in robotics that can inspire future
researchers, but much of it focuses on steady-state or constant-velocity
motion,” the leader of the team that made Baleka, Amir Patel, told Cape Business News in
an April 2019 report.
“The new frontier is transient, rapid movement—and we are one of
the first groups looking at that,” the department of electrical engineering
senior lecturer said.
Baleka was designed by Master’s student Alexander Blom. The
development engineer successfully identified the right robot structure through
writing a one-off algorithm with defined parameters for accelerating and
“By testing acceleration and deceleration motions and trying out
different leg lengths and gear ratios, we could identify what we needed to
build,” Blom told Cape Business News.
Next, his team devised Baleka’s operating system, sensors,
electronics, even a kill switch. “If anything goes wrong, we need to be able to
shut it down immediately,” Blom said.
Patel tells Popular Mechanics that
Baleka is designed to accelerate terrifically fast. Consequently, it’s capable
of high-energy bursts based on super-efficient, high-torque twisting-force brushless DC
motors and high-frequency software controllers that drive them
fast. The wizardry enables Baleka to push off the ground, even leap.
Patel pinpoints two reasons for making Baleka-style robots that go
ever faster. First, he and his team want robots to be much more autonomous. In
step with that aim, robots must react snappily to sudden changes like slippery
patches on their own.
The second reason to build still faster robots, Patel says, is
that they constitute an excellent platform for testing high-speed algorithms using
novel sensing systems. For example, he says, the algorithms his team devised
for Baleka are directly transferable to other systems such as aircraft and
Like IHMC’s Pratt, Patel says the main application will be
emergencies. One day, he predicts, high-speed robots will track down survivors
in a challenging disaster space such as a flood or earthquake that obliges the
devices to turn-on the speed while navigating obstacles.
From his standpoint, running robots have already left humans in
the dust. Patel cites how Cheetah laps Usain Bolt. Mind you, he has a caveat.
“These robots are really good at working in the lab!” Patel says.
“Working outside in the real world is pretty challenging, as obstacles and
missteps can often happen.”
The biggest challenge, he says, is cognition. “At the moment, our
brains can easily compensate for changes in the world. I think that, for robots
to move out of the lab, they will need to think on their feet much faster. Or
Technologist Boris Koganat echoes
Patel’s point about stumbling blocks.
“Walking robots—both bipeds and quadrupeds—are still an evolving
field,” says the mechatronics architect, whose discipline twins electronics
with mechanical engineering.
“As simple as walking and running is for living creatures, we
still don’t see robots operate in our made-for-humans environment,” Koganat
Smarter hardware control is required to keep robots on their feet
and ensure they stay upright while performing tasks in an environment
characterized by unknown disturbances. Besides having to negotiate ground
interaction at every step, a running robot must address “the task itself.” A
disaster-recovery-and-prevention mission may involve opening doors, turning
levers, maneuvering object, and operating equipment made for humans, such as
drills, Koganat says.
Koganat adds that it’s hard to achieve “reasonable endurance” of
six to eight hours on a single charge. Still, he says, the desire to mature the
robotic locomotion field—make next-generation machines that surpass human
Accordingly, technology will evolve. Energy sources are growing in
size and power, Koganat says, stating that batteries carry considerable charge
and can output intense power on demand, in the case of electric bikes, cars,
buses, even planes. Hydraulics—the branch of science concerned with piping
liquids—and adaptable smart materials including elastic “shape-memory alloys”
may further drive speed, he says.
“So it’s being driven by multiple players, including industrial
robotics manufacturers and users,” Koganat says. It’s impossible to find a
person who has yet to see YouTube clips of Boston Dynamics robots walking,
running, jumping—even doing back flips, he adds, evoking the world’s touted
most dynamic humanoid Atlas,
which is so cool that it does parkour.
The outlook for upticks is good; Koganat says many robots with more strength
than us already exist. According to one report cited
elsewhere, robots could soon be 15 times stronger through a new, rubber-like
artificial muscle. One more reason for high expectation is that other
established machines like airplanes and space shuttles transcend our physical
constraints by flying and entering the outer stratosphere, Koganat says.
“Fast robots should be nothing out of the ordinary,” he says,
adding that where quick response is needed to avert disasters, they’ll act
faster and better than humans. In the future, the speed that robots achieve may
“With a large enough and power-dense energy source, we can
probably propel any machine to unimaginable speeds,” he says.
Like Pratt, he believes the fastest robots may be hybrids—an
advantageous eclectic mix of frameworks. One inspiring hybrid he cites, Boston Dynamics’
Handle, bowls along on wheels that double as feet.
The leggy, free-wheeling research robot dubbed “a Segway-on-mescaline” by Wired stands
6.5 feet tall. Kept erect by finely tuned control algorithms, the super Segway
with a side gig stacking boxes travels at 9 mph and jumps 4 feet vertically.
In the promo clip,
Handle rears up and rolls down a flight of six steps and an icy slope before
heading into a parking lot, where it hangs a left. Besides, it straddles and
rolls over a table before executing a last, freeze-framed cheeky leap back into
Despite its stunning mobility, Handle is supposedly simple.
“Handle uses many of the same dynamics, balance and mobile manipulation
principles found in the quadruped and biped robots we build, but with only
about 10 actuated joints, it is significantly less complex,” says the Boston
Dynamics explainer appended to the clip.
While wheels are efficient on flat surfaces, legs can go almost
anywhere. “By combining wheels and legs, Handle can have the best of both
worlds,” the statement says. Koganat portrays the research robot in an equally
upbeat light and also sees huge potential.
“You can think of it as a human on an electric skateboard, or
inside a car,” Koganat says. “And with that, the sky’s the limit.”
Futurist Anders Sörman-Nilsson, the managing director of the
strategic think tank Thinque,
also sees few constraints on progress broadly. According to him, fleet-footed
cybernetic performers are part of a trend toward robots outstripping us across
“We are living at a time when the rate of change has never been
this fast and will never be this slow again,” Sörman-Nilsson tells Popular
Mechanics. “We are living in exponential times. Robots are amongst
the avant-garde technologies driving this development.”
Whether it’s our brawn or brains becoming automated or
roboticized, humankind focuses on value-innovations that make something faster,
better, or cheaper, he says.
Sörman-Nilsson projects a future where robots are weaponized in
warfare. Alternatively, they may be deployed in occupational health-and-safety
campaigns in innovative spaces like the factory of the
future and digital mining. In such contexts, fast robots will
reduce physical harm to humans by supplanting and putting them out of harm’s
way, he says.
While humans are on a linear development curve, robots follow an
exponential development one. “Which means they will overtake us tortoises in
the near future,” Sörman-Nilsson.
In the future, it seems, a host of robots of all stripes will have
sufficient athleticism to lap us. Soon we’ll be the
clodhoppers sorely needing more speed.
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