Aero- and hydrodynamics that describe fluid-structure interactions have helped us understand how animals fly and swim and develop aerial and aquatic vehicles that move through air and water rapidly and efficiently. By contrast, we know surprisingly little about how terrestrial animals move so well in natural terrains like deserts and forests, and even the best of our robots still struggle in complex terrains like building rubble or loose Martian soil. My research aims to create the new field of terradynamics that describe complex locomotor-terrain interactions to better understand animal locomotion and improve robot locomotion in complex terrains.
In this talk, I will demonstrate that, despite the formidable diversity and complexity of natural and artificial terrains, terradynamics can be created by integrating biomechanics, bio-inspired robotics, and contact mechanics/dynamics studies and developing new experimental tools and theoretical models. First, I will briefly review my previous research on creating the first terradynamics of legged locomotion on “flowable” ground such as sand and Martian soil, which enabled quantitative prediction of forces and movement and provided design and control principles for legged robots. Then, I will discuss on my recent research that begins to expand terradynamics into complex 3-D terrains such as dense vegetation and cluttered building rubble, where I discovered the first terradynamic shapes that help animals and robots traverse cluttered obstacles, analogous to airfoil and streamlined shapes that facilitate movement in fluids. Finally, I will posit my vision to create new terradynamics of complex 3-D terrains by developing “locomotion energy landscapes” to statistically predict movement.