Lizard-Inspired Robot Skips Across Sandy Surfaces

By Wesley Fenlon

Look at it go!

The study of terradynamics, or how things move across granular surfaces, is a popular topic for researchers and professors at Georgia Tech. In 2011 they created snake-like a wedge-shaped robot that could burrow through sand, studying the physics of how a minor tilt of the head could control its motion through a granular environment. This year the focus has shifted from snakes to lizards, but the natural world's influence is still present in Georgia Tech's new miniature running robot.

Photo credit: Gary Meek for Georgia Tech

The robot's design is inspired by lizards who are easily able to scamper over the loose sand of desert environments. Georgia Tech's researchers studied the legs of these lizards to understand how the angles and lengths of their legs and the amount of force applied to motion affect their ability to move fluidly across uneven, shifting surfaces. The team then prototyped different leg designs on a 3D printer and tested them out on a miniature running robot.

Crescent- or C-shaped legs had the robot skipping across a thick sandy surface with ease, but flatter, shorter legs left it bogged down and moving much more slowly. Unsurprisingly, long legs, which covered more surface area, performed better than shorter ones.

The small lizard bot is cute, but scaled up this could be an important study. It could pave the way for new designs in reconnaissance robots that currently rely on wheels ill-suited to desert terrain. And deserts are hardly the only granular surfaces on the planet--this could improve robotic exploration in tons of scenarios, and perhaps even give robots like Boston Dynamics' LS3 surer footing.