WASHINGTON - A four-legged robot known as the Cheetah lived up to its name on Monday, setting a new land speed record for legged robots by running at 18 mph (29 kph) on a treadmill at a laboratory in Massachusetts, its developer said.

The Cheetah, being developed by Boston Dynamics with funding from the US military’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is part of a programme aimed at achieving theoretical and experimental advances in the science of robotics.

The Cheetah broke a land speed record for legged robots that was set in 1989 when a two-legged robot at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ran at a speed of just over 13 mph (21 kph), Boston Dynamics said in a statement. Dr. Alfred Rizzi, chief robotics scientist at Boston Dynamics, said the goal is ultimately to get the Cheetah running much faster and in an outdoors environment.

 “We designed the treadmill to go over 50 mph (80 kph) but we plan to get off the treadmill and into the field as soon as possible,” Rizzi said in a statement. “We really want to understand the limits of what is possible for fast-moving robots.”

According to BBC, Darpa said the project was part of efforts to develop robots designed to ‘more effectively assist war fighters across a greater range of missions’. The robot’s movements have been modelled on those of fast-running animals in the wild. The machine is designed to flex and unflex its back to increase the length of its stride.

The current version is dependent on an off-board hydraulic pump, requiring one of the researchers to hold the tubing out of its way. However, the researchers said a free-running prototype was planned for later this year. The four-year project, which was commissioned in February 2011, ultimately aims to deliver a robot which can ‘zigzag to chase and evade’, and be able to come to an abrupt halt.

It builds on other models based on animals created by Boston Dynamics including its BigDog rough-terrain robot, designed to recycle energy from one step to the next, and its lizard-like Rise, which can climb walls, trees and fences by using micro-claws on its six feet and a tail for balance.

Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield said the latest achievement was very impressive. “With faster than human speed, this is a step in the development of a high speed killer that could negotiate a battlefield quickly to hunt and kill,” he said.