Imagine being chased down by a robotic Cheetah to get an idea of what the Department of Defense may have in mind for future combat operations. Boston Dynamics, Waltham, Mass., developer of BigDog, PETMAN, and other dynamic robots, received contracts in February from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop two new robots — one described as “agile” and one as “fast.” The ATLAS robot will take the shape of a human being (with a torso, two legs, and two arms) and will move through difficult terrain using humanlike behavior, sometimes walking upright on two feet, turning sideways to squeeze through narrow passages, and when the terrain gets especially rough, using its hands for extra support and balance.

Unlike most other humanoid robots that use static techniques to control their motion, ATLAS will move dynamically by using highly specialized control software and high-performance actuated hardware. The CHEETAH robot will have four legs, a flexible spine, an articulated head and neck, and possibly a tail. According to company sources, it will run faster than any existing legged robot and faster than the fastest human runners. The robotic feline will also be designed to make tight turns so that it can zigzag to chase or evade, and will accelerate rapidly, starting and stopping almost instantly.

A key feature of both robots will be their use of dynamic agility, in which the momentum of the system is used to enhance mobility and overcome obstacles. The robots will use momentum to bridge gaps, throwing or swinging themselves from one set of hand or foot holds to the next.

Both projects are funded by DARPA's “Maximum Mobility and Manipulation Program,” which focuses on making fundamental advances in robotics. In addition to military applications, such robots could be used in civil and commercial applications such as emergency response, firefighting, advanced agriculture, and travel in places that are inaccessible to conventional wheeled and tracked vehicles. For more information, visit bostondynamics.com.