Video: This Lizard-Inspired Robot Can Scamper Across Sand

It’s a product of the emerging field of terradynamics, which studies the movement of vehicles across shifting surfaces

The new robot runs across an uneven surface in a way modeled off a zebra-tailed lizard. Image courtesy of Chen Li, Tingnan Zhang, Daniel Goldman

Designing a robot that can easily move across loose terrain—say, a rover meant to traverse the surface of Mars—poses a unique engineering challenge: Wheels commonly sink into what engineers call “flowable ground” (mixtures of sand, soil, mud and grass).

Given the many biologically-inspired innovations in robotics, a team of researchers from Georgia Tech had an idea—to base a design on desert creatures such as zebra-tailed lizards that are able to scramble across a loose, sandy surface without slowing down. Their efforts allowed them to create this small six-legged device, presented in an article published today in Science, which can run across a granular surface in a way uncannily reminiscent of a reptile.


The research team, led by Chen Li, designed the device after studying the locomotion of various creatures and mathematically simulating the performance of different types of legs (varying in number, shape and length) in several distinct environments. They hope their research will spur the development of a field they’ve termed “terradynamics”—just as aerodynamics is concerned with the performance of winged vehicles in air, their field will study the motion of legged vehicles on granular surfaces.

To design their robot, they used these simulations to determine the exact leg lengths, movement speeds and levels of force that would propel devices across a loose surface without causing them to sink in too deeply. They then printed a variety of leg types with a 3D printer, and built robots to test them in the lab.

One of their most interesting findings is that the same types of design principles apply for locomotion on a variety of granular surfaces, including poppy seeds, glass beads and natural sand. Their simulations and real-world experiments revealed that C-shaped legs generally worked best, but that any type of bow-shaped limbs worked relatively well because they spread out the weight of the device over long (albeit narrow) leg surfaces as the legs come into contact with the ground over the course of a stride.

The researchers found that C-shaped limbs work best for moving quickly over granular surfaces, both in lizards and robots. Dashed, solid, and dotted depictions in C and D are early, middle, and late leg positions during a stride. Arrows indicate directions of motion for specific leg regions. Image via Science/Li et. al.

The applications of this kind research are broad: This particular robot, the researchers say, could be developed into a useful search-and-rescue or scouting device, while the principles derived from the field of terradynamics could be useful in designing probes to explore other planets in the future. They could also help biologists to better understand the how life forms here on earth have evolved to move across our planet’s surface.

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