What Robots Can Learn From Lizards About Walking on Sand

NPS/Brad Sutton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
NPS/Brad Sutton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0 / NPS/Brad Sutton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Researchers at Georgia Tech are developing robots that can travel quickly across uneven surfaces such as sand and snow—and they’re drawing inspiration from the way animals move. The approach, known as “bioinspiration,” has gained a lot of traction recently; animal physiology has inspired everything from new adhesives to hearing aids

The Georgia Tech researchers have been studying animal movement for a while now, but their most recent experiment was particularly fascinating. In order to compare how different species walk, they designed a special air fluidized trackway that could mimic different surfaces by blowing air at different speeds. Then, they observed how lizards, geckos, crabs, and a robot moved across the trackway as the terrain became increasingly weak. 

While all of the animals outperformed the robot, one little lizard emerged as the clear champion. The robot was the first to be hindered by decreased surface tension, ultimately losing 70 percent of its speed. The other animals, meanwhile, saw losses between 20 and 50 percent—all except a desert lizard called C. draconides, that is. 

“We think that this particular lizard is well suited to the variety of terrain because it has these ridiculously long feet and toes,” study researcher Dan Goldman said in a press statement. “These feet and toes really enable it to maintain high performance and reduce its penetration into the surface over a wide range of substrate conditions. On the other hand, we see animals like ghost crabs that experience a tremendous loss of performance as the substrate changes, something that was surprising to us.”

[h/t: Georgia Tech]