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Robots, animals reveal surface-appendage relationship

13 Oct 2015

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A research team from Georgia Institute of Technology has determined that having a light touch makes a huge difference in how well animals and robots move across challenging granular surfaces such as snow, sand and leaf litter. Additionally, they were able to show that the design of appendages, whether legs or wheels, affects the ability of both robots and animals to cross weak and flowing surfaces.

Using an air fluidised bed trackway filled with poppy seeds or glass spheres, the researchers systematically varied the stiffness of the ground to mimic everything from hard-packed sand to powdery snow. By studying how running lizards, geckos, crabs, and a robot, moved through these varying surfaces, they were able to correlate variables such as appendage design with performance across the range of surfaces.

The key measure turned out to be how far legs or wheels penetrated into the surface. What the scientists learned from this systematic study might help future robots avoid getting stuck in loose soil on some distant planet.

Feifei Qian

Georgia Tech graduate student Feifei Qian prepares to place Sandbot, a bio-inspired hexapedal robot, into a trackway filled with granular media. The robot was used to study how the stiffness of a loosely-packed surface affects the ability to move across it. (Credit: John Toon, Georgia Tech)

"You need to know systematically how ground properties affect your performance with wheel shape or leg shape, so you can rationally predict how well your robot will be able to move on the surfaces where you have to travel," said Dan Goldman, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Physics. "When the ground gets weak, certain animals seem to still be able to move around independently of the surface properties. We want to understand why."

The research was supported by National Science Foundation, Army Research Laboratory and Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Feifei Qian

Georgia Tech graduate student Feifei Qian shows details of the Sandbot, a bio-inspired hexapedal robot that was used to study how the stiffness of a loosely-packed surface affects the ability to move across it. The robot's capabilities were compared to those of five desert-dwelling animals, including lizards and crabs. (Credit: John Toon, Georgia Tech)

For years, Goldman and colleagues have been using trackways filled with granular media to study the locomotion of animals and robots, but in the past, they had used fluidized bed only to set the initial compaction of the media. In this study, however, they used variations in continuous air flow, introduced through the bottom of the device, to vary the substrate's resistance to penetration by a leg or wheel.

Goldman compares the trackway to the wind tunnels used for aerodynamic studies.

"By varying the air flow, we can create ground that is very, very weak, so that you sink into it quite easily, like powdery snow, and we can have ground that is very strong, like sand," he explained. "This gives us the ability to study the mechanism by which animals and robots either succeed or fail."

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