The bounding, four-legged machine known as MIT Cheetah II does wear a few spots in homage to its wild muse. But Sangbae Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering, isn’t aiming to reproduce nature in his work as the head of MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory. He borrows both liberally and selectively, not only from the biomechanics of the animal kingdom but from the science of human decision making and the cutting edge of mechanical design.

“We have to understand what is the governing principle that we need, and ask: Is that a constraint in biological systems, or can we realize it in an engineering domain?” Kim told MIT News in December. “There’s a complex process to find out useful principles overarching the differences between animals and machines.” Kim’s goal is to design what he calls “robotic first responders” that can cover distances with unprecedented speed and efficiency, capable of maneuvering autonomously past obstacles and performing human-scale tasks. Another of his lab’s creations, HERMES, is a two-legged humanoid robot that can be controlled through full-body teloperation. Such inventions could become essential allies in search-and-rescue missions and other disaster response situations.