Robot cheetah outruns Usain Bolt

A US defense department robot has reached 28.3 mph on a treadmill — faster than any human in recorded history.

The robot, dubbed Cheetah, is the work of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It’s the closest thing to a real life Q from Bond and gets to work on ultra-cool projects in the hope of developing military advantages.

The Cheetah project aims to develop tactical robots, used for reconnaissance missions and path clearing, so that they can maintain speed while dealing with obstacles. Staff recently decided to try out a side-effect of the work: the idea that if Cheetah can move quickly in unfavorable conditions, it might be able to be to reach extremely impressive speeds in perfect conditions.

It’s safe to say that proved the case. Although Cheetah has previously been timed at 18 mph (a robot record), researchers decided to take a peak reading over 20 meters. The result was 28.3 mph.

Taking a reading over 20 meters is significant because that’s also the distance used to calculate the fastest ever human run. Analysis of footage showed that Usain Bolt covered a 20 meter section of track at 27.78 mph at the peak of his record-setting 100 meter run in 2009.

It is a slightly unfair comparison, even leaving aside that it’s man vs machine. DARPA noted that the run being on a treadmill gave Cheetah the equivalent of a 28.3 mph tail wind. That equates to 12.65 meters per second, far above the 2 mps allowable for an athletics world record to stand. Of course, that aspect is further complicated by the fact that Cheetah’s energy largely went to lifting its limbs rather than forward propulsion.

Whether Cheetah could actually beat Bolt in a track race is another matter. One issue would be what if any loss of speed came from being on a track rather than a treadmill. Another is whether Cheetah could maintain its speed better than Bolt. There might also be an issue with whether it kept perfectly straight for the full distance.

The start and acceleration would also play a role. The obvious answer of prepping Cheetah to start near-instantly upon the gun would be out of the question as the rules on false starts use an assumption about how quickly a human can react and a racer starting quicker than this can be disqualified even if they don’t move until after the gun. Still, starting as quickly as allowed would likely give an advantage over the relatively slower Bolt.

Finally, such a race would present practical differences as the finishing line technology might struggle with the difference in height between Bolt’s torso and whatever the equivalent section is in Cheetah.