Now, a robot with nine lives

Scientists build stable, agile, cat-like robots that could be used in search-and-rescue missions

Swiss scientists have created a cat-like robot with the stability and agility to one day be used in search-and-rescue missions.

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne created what they have dubbed the "cheetah-cub robot," a lightweight quadruped prototype about the size of a house cat. The robot is able to run nearly seven times its body length in one second.

As agile as a live cat? Well, not yet.

However, scientists said the robot still has solid auto-stabilization characteristics when running at full speed or over a course that includes small steps.

The robot's strengths all lie in its cat-like legs.

Researchers built the robot's legs to mimic cats' legs -- with three similarly proportioned segments on each leg. Springs were used to replicate the cat's tendons, while small motors replicate the feline muscles.

"This morphology gives the robot the mechanical properties from which cats benefit, that's to say, a marked running ability and elasticity in the right spots, to ensure stability," said Alexander Sprowitz, a scientist on the team. "The robot is thus naturally more autonomous."

By making the cheetah-cub robot more stable and agile than traditional robots, it would be more able to climb over rubble and debris left by earthquakes or tornadoes. Search-and-rescue teams could use the robots to get inside collapsed buildings or devastated areas to look for survivors.

It's fairly common for scientists to base robotic designs on living creatures.

For instance, last summer Harvard University researchers, inspired by starfish and squid, developed squishy robots that can change color. Working with DARPA, the scientists also are working on making the soft robot able to change its temperature, enabling it to evade heat vision.

In June 2012, scientists at the University of California at Berkeley announced that they were striving to make robots more agile and maneuverable by studying the way cockroaches seemingly disappear.

A scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Biorobotics Laboratory demonstrates the cheetah-cub robot. (Video: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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