This speedy, tiny soft robot was inspired by the way a cheetah runs

Luke Dormehl

Researchers at North Carolina State University have built a cheetah-inspired robot. But it doesn’t look quite like what you’re probably expecting. While we’re used to robots like Boston Dynamics’ canine-inspired, full-sized dog robots, North Carolina State’s cheetah robot is just 7 centimeters long (2.75 inches) and weighs only 45 grams (just over 1.5 ounces). For those who don’t qualify as wildlife experts, that’s considerably smaller than a real-life adult cheetah, which can measure around 4.5 feet in length, and weigh between 75 and 150 pounds.

The robot version could nonetheless be a significant advance.

The North Carolina State cheetah robot — called LEAP, or Leveraging Elastic instabilities for Amplified Performance — is a soft robot that can significantly outpace other soft robots by borrowing inspiration from the ways real cheetahs flex their spines to achieve speed and power. By making the soft robot’s flexible spine able to quickly flex and extend to mimic the active role of a cheetah’s spine, it’s possible to quickly propel the soft robot forward on the ground (and even underwater.)

“The breakthrough of this work is that it makes soft robots capable of galloping like a cheetah to achieve high-speed locomotion, which is about 3 times faster than the reported fastest soft robots,” Jie Yin, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University, told Digital Trends. “The locomotion of most previously reported soft robots mainly rely on crawling, with their soft body always remaining in contact with the ground. It is a big leap from crawling to galloping for soft robots.”

Jie Yan/North Carolina State University

Right now, LEAP is more of a proof-of-concept than a finished product. That means that potential use cases are hypothetical and varied. Yin said that the robot could potentially be employed in any scenario where high efficiency is needed — and gave the illustration of search-and-rescue missions or even potentially as a component in rehabbing knee joints to aid with walking and running.

“[The] next step is to optimize the design to achieve a higher speed by utilizing the quick energy release through bistability in both spine and legs,” Yin said. “Then we will scale up the size to be comparable to animal size. We will see if it can further improve the speed to compete with real land animals. Also, the robot will be much easier to be autonomous when scaling up. We would like to keep the design simple but powerful. Similarly, it could also scale down to insect size or even microscale size to be capable of moving inside the human body for quick drug delivery or efficient health inspections.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Science Advances.