Tag Archives: cheetah

Mini Cheetah.

MIT’s newest, diminutive robot can do backflips and outrun you in every single way

MIT’s newest robot is cute, tiny, modular, and could run rings around you.

Mini Cheetah.

*robotic cheetah noises*.
Image credits Bryce Vickmark.

Researchers at MIT have developed a ‘mini cheetah’ robot whose range of motion, they boast, would rival those of a champion gymnast. This four-legged robot (hardly more than a powerpack on legs) can move, bend, and swing its legs in a wide range of motions, which allows it to handle uneven terrain about twice as fast as a human, and even walk upside-down. The robot, its developers add, is also “virtually indestructible” at least as falling or slamming into stuff is concerned.

Skynet’s newest pet

The robot weighs in at a paltry 20 pounds, but don’t let its diminutive stature fool you. The mini cheetah can perform some really impressive tricks, even being able to perform a 360-degree backflip from a standing position. If kicked to the ground, or if it falls flat, the robot can quickly recover with what MIT’s press release describes as a “swift, kung-fu-like swing of its elbows.” Apparently, nobody at MIT has ever seen Terminator.

But, the mini cheetah isn’t just about daredevil moves — it’s also designed to be highly modular and dirt cheap (for a robot). Each of its four limbs is powered by three identical electric motors (one for each axis) that the team developed solely from off-the-shelf parts. Each motor (as well as most other parts) can be easily replaced in case of damage.

“You could put these parts together, almost like Legos,” says lead developer Benjamin Katz, a technical associate in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“A big part of why we built this robot is that it makes it so easy to experiment and just try crazy things, because the robot is super robust and doesn’t break easily, and if it does break, it’s easy and not very expensive to fix.”

The mini cheetah draws heavily from its much larger predecessor, Cheetah 3. The team specifically aimed to make it smaller, easier to repair, more dynamic, and cheaper so that they would create a platform on which more researchers can test movement algorithms. The modular layout also makes it highly customizable. In Cheetah 3, Katz explains, you had to “do a ton of redesign” to change or install any parts since “everything is super integrated”. In the mini cheetah, installing a new arm is as simple as adding some more motors.

“Eventually, I’m hoping we could have a robotic dog race through an obstacle course, where each team controls a mini cheetah with different algorithms, and we can see which strategy is more effective. That’s how you accelerate research.”

Each of the robot’s 12 motors is about the size of a Mason jar lid and comes with a gearbox that provides a 6:1 gear reduction, enabling the rotor to provide six times the torque that it normally would. A sensor permanently measures the angle and orientation of the motor and its associated limb, allowing the robot to keep tabs on its shape.

It’s also freaking adorable:

This lightweight, high-torque, low-inertia design allows the robot to execute fast, dynamic maneuvers and make high-force impacts on the ground without breaking any gears or limbs. The team tested their cheetah through the hallways of MIT’s Pappalardo Lab and along the slightly uneven ground of Killian Court. In both cases, it managed to move at around 5 miles (8 km) per hour. Your average human, for context, walks at about 3 miles per hour.

“The rate at which it can change forces on the ground is really fast,” Katz says. “When it’s running, its feet are only on the ground for something like 150 milliseconds at a time, during which a computer tells it to increase the force on the foot, then change it to balance, and then decrease that force really fast to lift up. So it can do really dynamic stuff, like jump in the air with every step, or run with two feet on the ground at a time. Most robots aren’t capable of doing this, so move much slower.”

They also wrote special code to direct the robot to twist and stretch, showcasing its range of motion and ability to rotate its limbs and joints while maintaining balance. The robot can also recover from unexpected impacts, and the team programmed it to automatically shut down when kicked to the ground. “It assumes something terrible has gone wrong,” Katz explains, “so it just turns off, and all the legs fly wherever they go.” When given a command to restart, the bot determines its orientation and performs a preprogrammed maneuver to pop itself back on all fours.

The team, funnily enough, also put a lot of effort into programming the bot to perform backflips.

“The first time we tried it, it miraculously worked,” Katz says.

“This is super exciting,” Kim adds. “Imagine Cheetah 3 doing a backflip — it would crash and probably destroy the treadmill. We could do this with the mini cheetah on a desktop.”

The team is building about 10 more mini cheetahs, which they plan to loan to other research groups. They’re also looking into instilling a (fittingly) very cat-like ability in their mini cheetahs, as well:

“We’re working now on a landing controller, the idea being that I want to be able to pick up the robot and toss it, and just have it land on its feet,” Katz says. “Say you wanted to throw the robot into the window of a building and have it go explore inside the building. You could do that.”

I have to admit, the idea of casually launching a robot out the window (there’s a word for that, by the way: defenestration) with complete disregard, and having it come back a few minutes later with its task complete, is hilarious to me. And probably why they will, eventually, learn to hate us.

Still, doom at the hands of our own creations is still a ways away, and not completely certain. Until then, the team will be presenting the mini cheetah’s design at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, in May. No word on whether they’ll be giving these robots out at the conference, but if they are, I’m calling major dibs.

Scientists say cheetahs should be on the endangered list

It’s bad news for one of the most iconic creatures on Earth: a comprehensive assessment of cheetah populations reveals that the big cats’ numbers have decreased dramatically. Researchers now want to list the fastest land animal as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Cheetahs grooming each other. Image credits: Stolz, Gary M., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An international team led by Florian Weise of the Claws Conservancy and Varsha Vijay of Duke University, working with National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, analyzed more than two million collared cheetah observations as well as 20,000 observations from both the research community and the general public. They concluded that across 789,700 square kilometers in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, a prime area for cheetahs, only 3,577 adults remain. They believe this justifies changing the classification of the animals from Vulnerable to Endangered.

“This collaborative, multiyear effort sounds the alarm about the state of cheetah populations in southern Africa, shining a light on the imperative need to protect these majestic predators,” said Gary E. Knell, President and CEO, National Geographic Society.

“The National Geographic Society is proud to support such a comprehensive assessment and similar efforts aimed at safeguarding our most precious species, their habitats and the planet we call home.”

The area they studied isn’t the only one to host cheetahs, but it does host the largest free-roaming population on Earth. In other, more remote areas, the paper believes 3,250 cheetahs still roam. Together, that’s less than 8,000 individuals, which is disturbing and not nearly enough for a healthy population.

“Around the world, big cats are suffering big losses and having big trouble in more and more human-dominated landscapes,” says study co-lead author Florian Weise of the Massachusetts-based conservation group Claws Conservancy.

The only encouraging news from this study comes from the methodology. The fact that researchers were able to incorporate so many observations, both from a professional setting and from the general public, could enable us to better understand big cat populations, which are struggling in most parts of the world.

“We have a larger degree of certainty in the lower estimate because it is based on those areas where we have recorded estimates of cheetahs,” says study co-lead author Varsha Vijay, who specialises in geospatial analysis for The Pimm Group at Duke University.

“There is greater uncertainty in the higher estimate because it assumes the very optimistic scenario that all the areas we identified as potential cheetah habitat are occupied by cheetahs at similar densities to the areas with confirmed cheetah presence,” Vijay says.

The cheetah’s complete home range. Image credits: Al Pereira / Wikipedia.

But for the cheetahs, things don’t really look so good. Humans have altered around 90% of their historic habitat, and with cheetahs having ranges of tens to hundreds of square kilometers, cornering them in can have devastating consequences. In prehistoric times, the cheetah was distributed throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. Gradually, they vanished from Europe and started to retreat more and more in the face of an expanding humankind. Nearly 500 years ago, the cheetah was still common throughout Africa, with an estimated range of 25,344,648 km2 (9,785,623 sq mi). As of 2015, their range has decreased by 89%. Nowadays, cheetahs exist mostly in eastern and southern Africa, with only fragmented, isolated populations in Iran, Afghanistan, and India. People are repurposing the land cheetahs used to prowl for agriculture. Farmers won’t hesitate to kill cheetahs, which they see as a threat to livestock. Cheetahs are also sometimes hit by cars and poached. This sum of threats might just be too much for the cheetahs to handle.

The IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. IUCN is the main authority on animal conservation, with both animals and plants potentially included on the list as Vulnerable, Endangered, and Critically Endangered. An endangered species is a species which has been categorized as very likely to become extinct. Generally speaking, the IUCN will move a species from Vulnerable to Endangered if there’s a decline in 50 to 70 percent of the population over 10 years or three generations (whichever is longer). But even if they are reclassified, this might not improve things significantly. Just 18.4 percent of the southern African cheetah range lies within protected lands. Farmers will still continue to change the land according to their needs, they will continue to shoot cheetahs on site, and poachers will continue to poach. That’s where action needs to be taken if we want future generations to grow up in a world with emblematic big cats.

“The future of the cheetah relies heavily on working with farmers who host these big cats on their lands, bearing the heaviest cost of coexistence,” concludes Weise.

The study was published in the journal PeerJ.

Sprinting towards extinction: cheetahs number plunge

The world’s fastest land animal and one of the planet’s most popular creatures, the cheetah, is silently moving closer to extinction. Just 7,100 cheetahs remain, largely due to humans destroying their habitats.

Cheetahs face a rocky future. Image credits: Zoological Society of London

The new study led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Panthera and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found that cheetahs have been kicked out of 91% of their historic range. No population has remained unharmed, but those in Asia have been hit the hardest. Just 50 cheetahs remain in an isolated pocket in Iran.

Dr. Sarah Durant, ZSL/WCS lead author and Project Leader for the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dog, said:

“This study represents the most comprehensive analysis of cheetah status to date. Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked. Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought.”

Authors call for the cheetahs to be up-listed from ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They argue that more conservation measures are needed if we want to save the species.

“We have worked with range state governments and the cheetah conservation community to put in place comprehensive frameworks for action to save the species, but funds and resources are needed to implement them. The recent decisions made at the CITES CoP17 meeting in Johannesburg represent a significant breakthrough particularly in terms of stemming the illegal flow of live cats trafficked out of the Horn of Africa region. However, concerted action is needed to reverse ongoing declines in the face of accelerating land use changes across the continent.”

The felines face a range of problems, all stemming from interactions with society. Aside from kicking them out of their historic range, humans also overhunt their prey, leaving the cheetahs unable to feed themselves. Because the species has such a wide range, it is highly vulnerable to human impacts and to make things even worse, cheetahs have also become popular as “pets.” Even in protected areas and natural parks, they aren’t safe. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers dropped from 1,200 to a maximum of 170 animals in just 16 years, an unprecedented drop in numbers.

The study came as quite a surprise and shows that the situation is much dire than most anticipated. We need to reanalyze thing and come up with concrete solutions – otherwise, next generations will see cheetahs only in history books. Speaking about this, Panthera’s Cheetah Program Director, Dr. Kim Young-Overton, said:

“We’ve just hit the reset button in our understanding of how close cheetahs are to extinction. The take-away from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough. We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-ranging cats inhabit, if we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever.”

Journal Reference: Sarah M. Durant et al. The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation. PNAS, December 27, 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1611122114

Usain Bolt of the animal kingdom - Paratarsotomus macropalpis.

Small mite is world’s fastest land animal, relative to size

Usain Bolt of the animal kingdom - Paratarsotomus macropalpis.

Usain Bolt of the animal kingdom – Paratarsotomus macropalpis. Photo: FASEB Journal

Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animals in the world, able to run as fast as 75 mph. It’s their acute agility that allows them to survive, however, catching prey by making huge leaps at four times the acceleration human leg muscles are capable of producing. No doubt about it, this is one of the most amazing cats out there, but while cheetahs are the fastest in the macro-world, size-per-size a small mite native that lives in Southern California takes the crown. The miti, called Paratarsotomus macropalpis, can travel 322 body lengths in a second, toppling by far the previous record holder, the Australian tiger beetle, which tops out at 171 body lengths per second. The cheetah only boats 14 body lengths per second.

To put things into perspective, if we humans were capable of traveling at 322 body lengths per second, that would mean a velocity of 1,300 miles per hour. In under 20 hours, a human-Paratarsotomus m. hybrid could circle the globe (how’s that for an alternate universe Flash Gordon plot?). Yes, this is one fast mite… for its size.

The mite was first described a century ago, but only recently did scientists discover its awesome speed after closely following specimens with high-speed cameras. Follow-up research that will try to understand how the mite manages to pick up and put down each foot about 135 times a second might aid in designing super-agile robots.

Findings were reported in the journal FASEB Journal.

Tabby cat

How tabby cats earn their stripes – genetics answer

A feline genetic study has revealed that a particular gene variation in a cat’s chromosome is responsible for the stripped fur so many cat lovers adore. According to the researchers, the same gene gives cheetahs, the house cat’s larger and wilder cousin, stripes instead of the regular spots.

Tabby cat

Tabby cats are stripped with a variety of patterns.

The research was lead by Stephen O’Brien of the National Laboratory for Cancer Research, who also was part of the team which decoded the entire domestic cat genome back in 2007. An intriguing subject, which was just recently solved, was how exactly did cats get their varied coats, from plain solid colors to tabby narrow stripe or d “mackerel” pattern, as it’s also called.

Using the genetic mapping of the domestic cat’s genome, scientists narrowed their search down to one region of the chromosome containing three large genes. Further filtering by sequencing of both  blotched and stripped coated felines reveled that the specific gene in cause is “Taqpep“. Narrow stripes coated cats have a working copy of this gene, while cats with a blotchy “classic” pattern have the gene turned off by a mutation.

The researchers suspect, however, that the gene has a function far useful than simply offering stripes. Apparently the Taqpep gene also holds the blueprint for a molecule usually found on cell membranes and used for passing messages from outside the cell to the inside. These types of membrane molecules are often associated with the immune system. Since this color mutation occurs fairly often among cats, it may be safe to say that it has a role in strengthening cats’ immune system.

“What this is, is the first connection of a gene involved in pattern formation in cats to their molecular status,” said study researcher Stephen O’Brien of the National Laboratory for Cancer Research.

Also, it’s been found that a mutation in the same gene produces the blotches and stripes of the rare “king” cheetah, rather than the spots most cheetahs have.  The research itself wasn’t initiated out of a fluke of curiosity in a quest to establish why tabby cats get their stripes. O’Brien said, cat genetics may help researchers understand human disease and genetic development.

Findings were reported in the journal Science.


Why Cheetahs can outrun any other fast paced animal

CheetahThe cheetah is the Bugatti Veyron of the animal kingdom, capable of reaching speeds as high as 29m/s (65mph). Actually, in a 0 to 60 mph race, most cars would have a hard time in out-pacing the fastest land animal in the world. How does the cheetah manage to outstrip all its other animal contenders, even those which have a similar stride, like the greyhound? A new researcher from scientists at the  Royal Veterinary College, UK, have concluded that the cheetah’s secret is that it “shift gears” while running, striding more frequently at higher speeds. The sports car analogy couldn’t be more sound.

 “Cheetahs and greyhounds are known to use a rotary gallop and physically they are remarkably similar, yet there is this bewitching difference in maximum speed of almost a factor of two,” said Alan Wilson from the Royal Veterinary College, UK.

To study the running behavior of cheetahs in detail, the researchers choose to follow captive cheetahs from the ZSL Whipsnade Zoo in the suburbs of London and the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre in South Africa. They planted force-measuring plates in the ground and had both cheetahs and grayhounds chase after a piece of chicken.

“Force plates are cosseted, loved pieces of equipment that people don’t generally take outside of the lab and bury in the ground in the English summer,” Wilson chuckled.

High-speed video cameras capable of shooting at 100 frames/second were used to film the animals in motion and measured the force created by the running animal, calibrated with how much it weighed. Surprisingly, trained greyhounds galloped faster than captive cheetahs, clocking up a top speed of 19m/s compared with the cheetahs’ 17.8m/s. That’s a bit above half the speed the cheetah’s are capable of.

However, even though captive cheetahs are only marginally capable of exhibiting the same, extraordinary speeds of their wild counterparts, their running mechanics are relatively the same. The captive cheetahs also were able to change their stride frequency (strides per second) as they reached higher speeds: At 20 mph (32 kph), they took 2.4 strides per second, but at 38 mph (61 kph), they took 3.2 strides per second. The greyhounds, on the other hand, maintained a constant rate of around 3.5 strides per second no matter how fast they ran.

“They have lived in a zoo for several generations and have never had to run to catch food. They have probably never learned to run, particularly,” Wilson said. “The next stage is to try to make measurements in wild cheetahs in the hope of seeing higher speeds.”

The findings were presented in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

6 record holding animals you’ll never be as good as


Photo by bocavermelha
Sometimes, animals are better than humans. Quite a lot of times actually, but that’s not the point here. We’re going to take a look at some record holding animals that are (or do things that are) just unbelievable!

  • The biggest – the blue whale.


Photo by Dan Shapiro. Credit: NOAA via pingnews

It’s the biggest creature to have ever walked the face of the earth. Mature blue whales can measure anywhere from 75 feet (23 m) to 100 feet (30.5 m) and they weigh just about 150 tons (how do you weigh them?). Also, the blue whale holds another record – perhaps even a more spectacular one: it has the biggest penis. Yeah, and it goes up to 3-4 meters. that’s almost twice as tall as you. The tallest man to ever live (which by the way, is way above the average) was 2.72 m.

  • The fastest (3 categories) – cheetah, peregrine falcon and sailfish


Photo by tinyfishy

Obviously, there’s no point in comparing land creatures with air ones, or water. So let’s just make three categories, with a winner each. I think they’ll settle with a share of the spoils. So, the cheetah can reach 70 mph for short distances, which is about as much as the sailfish goes. But, that’s not it; peregrine falcons fly at 90 mph and dive at 200 mph. Not much of a chance for you if you’re a fish. For a comparison, the world record for 100 meters is just under 10 seconds, which means a speed of about 22 mph.

  • The animal that lives in the deepest parts of the ocean – undecided


Photo by nalina asha

Yep, we have an undecided event. That’s because it’s really hard for us to explore those extreme places and we haven’t been everywhere yet. Also, probably the creatures that live in the deepest parts are microorganisms. Anyway, sincer we don’t have a winner… the viper fish looks pretty great and it lives in really deep environments, so let’s say some things about it: it’s really easy to recognize due to the large mouth, long fang-like teeth and long first dorsal fin ray (up to half the body length). Extreme environments give fish extreme traits, such as chemical processes that create light. They’ve been known to live more than 2500 meters below the surface, where the pressure is equivalent to about several tens of jumbo jets lying on top of each other.

  • The most powerful – rhinoceros beetle


Photo by artour

Actually, this is about proportional strength: this little beetle that can fit in the palm of your hand can lift about 850 times its own weight. For a human, that would mean lifting about 60 tons (maybe on a good day, after a good workout). It uses it’s horn much in the way that a rhino does, and scientists believe the beetle has become so strong in order to dig safely to the surface.

  • Oldest living creature – bacteria

So you were expecting turtles, maybe elephants? Perhaps a plant, for cryin’ out loud! Betcha you can’t guess how old this bacteria is. Scientists can’t either. But what they can, is approximate; and they approximated the age of a bacteria found in ancient sea salt beneath Carlsbad, New Mexico to 250 million years! They were able to revive it from a state of suspended animation. The species hasn’t been even identified yet. Also, the oldest macroscopic organism is believed to be King’s Holly (Lomatia tasmanica) – found in the rainforests of Tasmania – 43.000 years old ! Lomatia is triploid, that is, it has three sets of chromosomes instead of two. Because of this it is unable to sexually reproduce. The clonal thickets reproduce vegetatively by root suckering.

  • Loudest animal – blue whale


Photo by ocean.
The blue whale can make sounds of almost 190 decibels. Doesn’t sound like much to you? To give you an idea, a man can not scream over 70 db and the loudest rock concerts rarely go near 150 db. But the bad thing is the fact that these just fantastic creatures are endangered – they’ve been so since the 1960s. Their numbers have decreased to less than 10.000, but hopefully they will be able to recored and strive once again – they’ve earned it.