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Taking robots off-roading

Terradynamics of legged locomotion on granular media. Left to right: Daniel Goldman and Chen Li.
[Image courtesy of Chen Li, Tingnan Zhang, Daniel Goldman]

Researchers can learn a lot from a lizard scampering across the desert sand or an insect walking across some gravel, according to a new study. Chen Li and colleagues studied how objects move across these types of "flowable" surfaces and designed a six-legged robot that can do it easily.

The new design is still not quite as efficient as a lizard or an insect, but the researchers say that it may help to improve roving and walking robots, like the Mars rovers.

Their study is similar to older studies of objects moving through air and water, which led to dramatic improvement in things like airplane wings, underwater robots—and even swimwear. But, according to the researchers, interacting with flowable ground like sand, soil, mud and grass can be even more complex than interacting with fluids.

Li and his colleagues looked to the natural world for inspiration, building upon previous research on lizards and insects. They used computer simulations to find the best leg shape and walking style for their robot, and they settled upon a design that optimizes each of its steps through the sand.