Distributed mechanical feedback in arthropods and robots simplifies control of rapid running on challenging terrain
Terrestrial arthropods negotiate demanding terrain more effectively than any search-and-rescue robot. Slow, precise stepping using distributed neural feedback is one strategy for dealing with challenging terrain. Alternatively, arthropods could simplify control on demanding surfaces by rapid running that uses kinetic energy to bridge gaps between footholds. We demonstrate that this is achieved using distributed mechanical feedback, resulting from passive contacts along legs positioned by pre-programmed trajectories favorable to their attachment mechanisms. We used wire-mesh experimental surfaces to determine how a decrease in foothold probability affects speed and stability. Spiders and insects attained high running speeds on simulated terrain with 90% of the surface contact area removed. Cockroaches maintained high speeds even with their tarsi ablated, by generating horizontally oriented leg trajectories. Spiders with more vertically directed leg placement used leg spines, which resulted in more effective distributed contact by interlocking with asperities during leg extension, but collapsing during flexion, preventing entanglement. Ghost crabs, which naturally lack leg spines, showed increased mobility on wire mesh after the addition of artificial, collapsible spines. A bioinspired robot, RHex, was redesigned to maximize effective distributed leg contact, by changing leg orientation and adding directional spines. These changes improved RHex's agility on challenging surfaces without adding sensors or changing the control system.