Cheetahs to Inspire Better Artificial Legs?

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September 29, 2009—Don't look for seeing-eye cheetahs anytime soon, but the big cats may help disabled people in another way—by inspiring better artificial legs.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP)

Unedited Transcript

Almost a standing start to a headlong sprint.

Zero to 65 five miles per hour in just a few paces is simple for this cheetah.

Shiraz is one of a group of cheetahs under close scrutiny from scientists at the Royal Veterinary College's Structure and Motion Laboratory.

These researchers are hoping that by discovering what makes the cheetah the fastest land mammal in the world they'll discover the key to more sophisticated ways of dealing with lameness in animals, designing safer horse and dog tracks, helping humans run faster and designing human prosthetics.

Force panels slotted flush into the ground of the cheetah's compound are able to carry out minute measurements.

SOUNDBITE: (English), Penny Hudson, Project Researcher, Royal Veterinary College "We can measure all these different things from our cheetahs. So we measure things like how long their feet are on the ground for, how long their strides are, the curvature of spine as they're running, and we're doing all this to try and unlock some of the reasons as to why cheetahs are so much faster than other animals."

All this is captured on two sets of high speed cameras shooting at one thousand frames per minute.

By investigating the minutiae of how this cat moves here scientists hope to understand how the mechanics of the cheetah gallop could have broader ecological implications for the species.

It can also have applications in human health and medicine, particularly in the area of prosthetics and cerebral palsy.

SOUNDBITE: (English), Alan Wilson, Royal Veterinary College, University of London "Cerebral palsy relates to dysfunction in particular muscles and understanding how those muscles function, using computer models to simulate how those muscles work, and what will be the outcome of surgery on those muscles, we use the same sort of mechanical approaches here, as with that, you're looking at calculating the loads in a muscle and then coming up with a "what if situation" as to how strong does that muscle have to be to perform its function."

It's no accident that South African paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius sprints on carbon fiber artificial feet called the "Cheetah".

The manufacture of prostheses has become a highly sophisticated and technical affair and the research going on here can further perfect what is already available on the market.

SOUNDBITE: (English), Professor Alan Wilson, Royal Veterinary College, University of London "Prosthetic limbs, (there are) technologies coming into them in terms of making them work in a more efficient, or a more mechanically effective manner, and there you're trying to understand how legs are used in the real world and by looking at how animals like cheetahs use their limbs, which are very much simpler than our own mechanically.

Wilson hopes that by seeing this sort of research in action more people will be enthused and attracted into science.

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