The new robot is the first device with four legs to be able to do the trick, after Boston Dynamics’s two-legged Atlas robot pulled off the stunt in November 2017.
As well as being able to bend and swing its legs wide, the robot can trot over uneven terrain about twice as fast as an average person’s walking speed, and right itself when kicked over.
MIT researchers claim the robot is designed to be “virtually indestructible,” recovering with little damage even if a backflip ends in a fall.
The 20-pound (around 9kg) Mini Cheetah is a smaller version of the Cheetah 3 robot which was developed last year.
Lead developer Benjamin Katz, a technical associate in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said: “A big part of why we built this robot is that it makes it so easy to experiment and just try crazy things, because the robot is super robust and doesn’t break easily, and if it does break, it’s easy and not very expensive to fix.
“In Cheetah 3, everything is super integrated, so if you want to change something, you have to do a ton of redesign, whereas with the mini cheetah, if you wanted to add another arm, you could just add three or four more of these modular motors.”
The researchers will present the Mini Cheetah’s design at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May.
The team is building about 10 more Mini Cheetahs, which they plan to loan out to collaborating groups.
The MIT team is also developing another, higher-impact manoeuvre to top the backflip.
Katz said: “We’re working now on a landing controller, the idea being that I want to be able to pick up the robot and toss it, and just have it land on its feet.
“Say you wanted to throw the robot into the window of a building and have it go explore inside the building. You could do that.”