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High-Tech Cheetah Tracking Reveals the Cat’s Hunting Secret

Research into wild animal locomotion could inform the design of future robots.

Biologically inspired robots could prove useful for all sorts of tasks (see “Just What Soldiers Need: A Bigger Robotic Dog”). But the design of such robots has been limited by our understanding of animal locomotion. Now, thanks to tracking technology, this is changing, and more nimble-footed machines could soon follow.

Agile cat: A new study shows that cheetahs in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, such as the one shown here, are more agile than previously thought. This will help further refine robotic biomimicry of the animal, as conducted by an MIT engineering lab.

A recent study published in the journal Nature highlights this shift. A group of researchers tracked several cheetahs living in the Okavango river delta of Botswana. The solar powered collars collected GPS data along with information from accelerometers and gyroscopes. This data combination was set up, averaged, and analyzed in a way that overcame the many possible shortcomings, which include GPS inaccuracy during fast movement, battery life, and errors associated with each individual measurement.

Cheetahs have long been known to catch their prey, often small-sized antelope such as impalas or gazelle, by cutting corners during the chase and tripping them up with a paw swipe (this is in stark contrast to Africa’s other cats, such as leopards or lions, which bring down their prey by jumping or latching onto it to drag it down).

Yet the extent to which a cheetah’s agility and acceleration plays a role in its hunting prowess was underestimated. While cheetahs can run at around 60 miles per hour, the researchers found that many successful hunts occurred at relatively low speeds, with a top speed of only 30 mph, while their acceleration, and ability to quickly change direction, played a large role in hunting.

Meanwhile, at MIT, a robotic biomimicry group has been working on replicating cheetah locomotion by building a cheetah-like robot, which has been tested to jump, walk, and run (at a top speed of only 13 mph) with efficiency and stamina that arguably already overwhelms the abilities of its animal counterpart. To be like a realistic cheetah, it’s less important for MIT’s robot to run at 60 mph, than to change direction at 30.

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