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MIT's Cheetah 3 robot. GIF via MIT video

In a turn away from vision, a team at MIT has created a feline robot that attempts to better approximate how humans and animals actually move, navigating stairs and uneven surfaces guided only by sensors on its feet.

Why it matters: Many ambulatory robots rely on substantial recent improvements in computer-vision, like advanced cameras and lidar. But robots will be more nimble and more practically interact with humans with the addition of "blind" vision — a sixth sense of feeling that most living things have for their surroundings.

What's going on: Computer vision alone can result in a robot with slow and inaccurate movements, says MIT's Sangbae Kim, designer of the Cheetah 3.

  • "People start adding vision prematurely and they rely on it too much," Kim tells Axios, when it's best suited for big-picture planning, like registering where a stairway begins and knowing when to turn to avoid a wall. So his team built a "blind" version in order to focus on tactile sensing.

How the blind version works: Two algorithms help the Cheetah stay upright when it encounters unexpected obstacles.

  • One determines when the bot plants its feet, by calculating how far a leg has swung, how much force the leg is feeling, and where the ground is.
  • The other governs how much force the robot should apply to each leg to keep its balance, based on the angle of the robot's body relative to the ground.
  • The sensors can also adjust to external forces, like a researcher's friendly kick from the side.

The result is a quick, balanced robot: The researchers measure the force on each of the Cheetah's legs straight from the motors that control them, allowing it to move fast — at 3 meters per second, or 6.7 miles an hour — and jump up onto a table from a standstill. These tricks make the 90-pound bot look surprisingly nimble.

Cheetah's design emphasizes "sensors that you and I take for granted," said Noah Cowan, director of the LIMBS robotics lab at Johns Hopkins University.

  • Humans unconsciously keep track of where their arms and legs are — and the forces acting on them — to help stay balanced and move smoothly. MIT’s Cheetah “feels” its legs in a similar way.

The Cheetah's capabilities resemble some of the robots produced by the ever-secretive Boston Dynamics, which in May released a video of its four-legged SpotMini navigating autonomously through its lab with the help of cameras.

  • It's not clear whether Boston Dynamic robots use tactile technology like Kim's, and the company did not respond to an email.

Vision will probably always play a role in walking robots, even if tactile sensing becomes commonplace. Velodyne, the most prominent lidar manufacturer — and a supplier for Boston Dynamics — says its technology can see further than three football fields in day or night, collecting 8 million datapoints every second from all directions. "The sensor also scans in a full 360 degrees which is impossible for a human to do," Frank Bertini, Velodyne's UAV and robotics business manager, tells Axios.

  • Kim's team plans to add cameras back onto the Cheetah in order to help it get around complex environments.
  • They also want to add a grasping arm that a human can control from afar.
  • The resulting bot could be well-suited for rescue operations or doing dangerous inspections in human-unfriendly environments.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

1 hour ago - World

Former spy Steele defends controversial Trump Russia dossier

Former U.K. intelligence officer Christopher Steele arrives at the High Court in London in July 2020. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The author of the "Steele Dossier," containing unverified claims about former President Trump told ABC News he stands by his controversial report, according to excerpts from an upcoming documentary published Sunday.

Why it matters: Former U.K. intelligence officer Christopher Steele's dossier was used as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged links to Russia's government.

Ina Fried, author of Login
5 hours ago - Technology

Intel CEO sees making own chips as a matter of national security

Pat Gelsinger. Photo: Axios on HBO

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger is putting the pressure on the U.S. government to help subsidize chip manufacturing, insisting the current reliance on plants in Taiwan and Korea as "geopolitically unstable."

Why it matters: There is bipartisan support for funding the domestic semiconductor industry, but Congress has yet to sign the check. The Senate has passed the CHIPS Act that includes $52 billion in semiconductor investment, but it has yet to pass the House.

Updated 5 hours ago - World

17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries kidnapped in Haiti

Haitian soldiers guard the public prosecutor's office in Port-au-Prince this month. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Children are among a group of 17 missionaries kidnapped in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, per a statement from Christian Aid Ministries Sunday.

The latest: "The group of 16 U.S citizens and one Canadian citizen includes five men, seven women, and five children," the Ohio-based group said. Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne on Sunday identified the 400 Mawozo gang as the group responsible, in a statement to AP.