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Robo-cheetah sets speed record

This DARPA video shows a demonstration of the "Cheetah" robot galloping at speeds of up to 18 mph.

If there's anything scarier than a cheetah coming after you, it would have to be a headless robo-cheetah coming after you at record speed. That nightmare is now a reality, thanks to DARPA's Cheetah robot, whose 18 mph pace has set a land speed record for machines with legs.

The feat, revealed today on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's website, is aimed at developing combat robots that can outrun and evade humans on foot — and a 3:20 mile should just about do it. (The world record for humans is 3:43.) Boston Dynamics has been working on the cheetah-bot as part of DARPA's Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, or M3.

"This robot is galloping," Boston Dynamics President Marc Raibert told the Boston Globe. "It's the first time we've had a robot that gallops."

The previous record for legged robots was 13.1 mph, set in 1989 by the MIT Leg Lab's stick-figurish Planar Biped robot. For what it's worth, flesh-and-blood cheetahs can still run much faster, zooming at up to 70 mph.

Boston Dynamics' headless Cheetah robot is just one of a menagerie of robots that are designed to take advantage of the biomechanics used by real-life creatures, ranging from fish to hummingbirds to, um, dogs. Boston Dynamics happens to be the same company that's been working on the BigDog and LS3 robots, which are also being developed for military applications (and are just as headlessly scary to behold).

If that's not yet scary enough for you, Boston Dynamics is building a humanlike robot code-named Atlas, which will be capable of walking and jogging upright, squeezing through narrow alleyways and grabbing things with its two robotic arms — once again, without a head.

The company says that in addition to the military applications, the robots can be used for humanitarian purposes such as emergency rescue and disaster response. Sure they can. I bet that's what they said about Skynet, too.

More about biomimetic robots:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.