August 1, 2008 Physicists studied the movement of animals that are mobile on loose surfaces like sand, mud, and gravel in order to design a robot capable of moving on shifty ground. The robot is based on a common cockroach and capable of navigating a variety of environments.
If you've ever gotten stuck in mud or sand in your car, you know that our cars, trucks and SUVs don't always do what we need them to. But now there's a smoother way for us to get around all the bumps, holes and curves that come our way.
They're a big attraction at aquariums, giant spider crabs that can grow to the size of a car and can travel over all kinds of surfaces. But what if physics could make a car that moves like these crabs?
In a Georgia Tech lab, physicist Daniel Goldman, Ph.D., is studying how crabs move over unstable surfaces like sand. How do they go so fast through such tricky terrain?
He attaches backpacks onto the crabs, which are connected to strain gauges that measure the movement of its legs. High-speed video tracks other animals, like lizards, as they run.
"We're interested to explore how the motion of the limbs and the motions of its little pointy feet allow mobility on certain types of sand but not very high mobility on other types of sand," says Dr. Goldman. Scientists are also measuring how different forces impact unstable materials, setting the stage for devices that can move better through them.
A robot, designed by engineers at the University of Pennsylvania, is based on a common cockroach and can be programmed to walk through deep sand. A mini-vehicle designed to move like an insect.
The army is helping to fund Dr. Goldman's research. The hope is that by learning more about the physics of unstable surfaces, scientists and engineers can develop vehicles for the military that are more adaptable to sandy deserts and other environments. One thing physicists and engineers do know -- the way we think of motion is changing, one step at a time.
WHAT IS BIOMIMICRY? Biomimicry is a field in which scientists, engineers, and even architects study models and concepts found in nature, and try to use them to design new technologies. Here are some well-known examples of biomimicry:
- Velcro was inspired by cockleburs, which cling tenaciously to clothing and animal fur.
- The design for the Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe -- the country's largest commercial and shopping complex -- is based on the region's termite mounds.
- Both Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers studied the flight of birds when designing their flying machines.
- Alexander Graham Bell designed his telephone receiver around the principles of the human ear.
- Sonar was inspired by how whales, dolphins and bats emit high-pitched sounds and analyze the returning echoes to help them navigate.
HOW ROBOTS WORK: Robots are artificial machines intended to replicate human and animal behavior. Robots are made of roughly the same components as human beings: a body structure with movable joints; a muscle system outfitted with motors and actuators to move that body structure; a sensory system to collect information from the surrounding environment; a power source to activate the body; and a computer "brain" system to process sensory information and tell the muscles what to do. Roboticists can combine these basic elements with other technological innovations to create some very complex robotic systems.
The American Physical Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.