MIT researchers have been working on a robotic cheetah, and now they have "trained" it to jump over hurdles while running at speeds of five miles per hour.

The feat makes the machine the first four-legged robot to run and jump over obstacles autonomously. As the cheetah robot approaches a hurdle, it estimates its height and distance and gauges the best position at which to leap and force to apply.

In experiments that took place on a treadmill and indoor track, the robot proved to have the ability to clear 70 percent of obstacles up to 18 inches tall (more than half of its own height) while maintaining its speed.

"A running jump is a truly dynamic behavior," said Sangbae Kim, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. "You have to manage balance and energy, and be able to handle impact after landing. Our robot is specifically designed for those highly dynamic behaviors."

The robot is able to "see" the obstacles in front of it thanks to LIDAR,  a visual system that uses laser reflections to map terrain. The mechanical cheetah also employs a three-part algorithm to plan its next move based on its observations. The researchers noted the algorithm does not provide "optimal" jumping control, but only a feasible one.

"If you want to optimize for, say, energy efficiency, you would want the robot to barely clear the obstacle - but that's dangerous, and finding a truly optimal solution would take a lot of computing time," Kim said. "In running, we don't want to spend a lot of time to find a better solution. We just want one that's feasible."

This means that at times, the robot may overshoot the obstacle and jump higher than it needs to.

"We're too obsessed with optimal solutions. This is one example where you just have to be good enough, because you're running, and have to make a decision very quickly," Kim said.

The robot's running jumps will be demonstrated at the DARPA Robotics Challenge in June, and a paper detailing the achievements will be presented in July at the conference Robotics: Science and Systems.

Watch the cheetah robot in action: