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SYFY WIRE Robotics

MIT’s Mini Cheetah robot channels Black Mirror’s ‘Metalhead’ dog drone

By Benjamin Bullard
MIT Mini Cheetah Robots play soccer

It’s one thing to be impressed by the recent wave of lab-controlled videos that show off untethered robots from places like Boston Dynamics and MIT, where all those backflips and on-a-dime direction changes at least seem benign, futuristic, and vaguely distant from the world we see around us. But it’s another thing altogether when a gang of four-legged Mini Cheetah droid drones squad up on the MIT lawn with a soccer ball, some people, and tons of pent-up energy to burn.

MIT’s Biomimetics Robotics Lab just shared a new clip of its Mini Cheetah (nine of them, actually) in action in the most casual of human environments, and there’s no unseeing these lil’ real-world Metalheads playfully doing the exact sort of things that Netflix made look far more sinister in “Metalhead” — Black Mirror’s infamously dystopian black-and-white Season 4 episode about a relentless dog droid that has a deadly answer for every conceivable escape tactic.

Stick around until the end to see these nerved-up little fellas do what turtles still can’t: flip themselves over when they take an upside-down tumble. And try not to shudder when they rise from hiding, in unison, beneath a leafy camouflage screen:

Nope, no sirree, MIT definitely isn’t trying to freak anyone out here. While the lab refers to its diminutive handiwork as the Cheetah, we’d say they’ve definitely gone to the dogs — and if those remote controls fall into the wrong human hands, we’re not so sure that they couldn’t take us people right along with them.

Joking aside, the Mini Cheetah in its current incarnation represents a milestone for the school’s robotics program, which has been developing the 20-pound, remotely operated ‘bots with practical applications in mind. Via The Verge, lab director Sangbae Kim says the rugged machines were designed for quick swap-out repair if one of their interchangeable parts breaks, and the small size is actually a benefit: They’re “not too small but not so big that it’s dangerous or fragile,” he explained. “We designed the machine to be able to absorb the impacts, jumping and landing and so on.”

As you can tell from their gymnastic interpretation of the rules of soccer, the Mini Cheetahs are definitely good at that. And so long as the people at MIT keep these robots’ synthetic eyes turned away from the TV whenever Black Mirror’s on, maybe humans and their metallic quadrupedal pals will end up getting along just fine.