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A New Area of Study Emerges at Georgia Tech: Terradynamics [VIDEO]

Mar 22, 2013 01:11 PM EDT
An artist's drawing of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is shown in this undated handout.
(Photo : Reuters)

For years scientists have had the tools to simulate and study the worlds behind aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. Now, thanks to a team at Georgia Tech, the study of legged vehicles and animals over loose sand, or "terradynamics," is taking form.

Using a 3D printer, the group has designed leg shapes of all sorts, attaching them to small robots that are then tested in a container of sand-like material.

This may seem like a niche science, but it can't come soon enough for NASA who lost the Spirit rover after it became stuck in a patch of soft sand in 2009. It remains there to this day.

As it turns out, what seems to work in one type of loose terrain works in others.

"We discovered that the force laws affecting this motion are generic in a diversity of granular media, including poppy seeds, glass beads and natural sand," researcher Chen Li told

Ultimately, the leg shape that appears to work best in is one made in the shape of a "C."

"As long as the legs are convex, the robot generates large lift and small body drag, and thus can run fast," Georgia Tech professor and fellow researcher Daniel Goldman explained. "When the limb shape was changed to flat or concave, the performance dropped."

Goldman has long studied animal movement to see how their locomotion may help to build better robots. He believes terradynamics doesn't only apply to robots, but them as well.

"These are the kinds of tools that can help us understand why lizards have feet and bodies of certain shapes," he said.

Furthermore, the researchers believe that with this new study will come a greater focus on surface material, which in turn will lead to a better understanding of not only what's beneath our feet, but the robots' as well.

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