Although modern wheeled and tracked vehicles can best the speed of any animal, they still cannot challenge animals versatility and agility over natural, rough terrain. Legged machines have long held the promise of achieving such agility, but only recently have robots such as RHex and iSprawl been built which are capable of running at multiple body-lengths per second and over unstructured terrain. The recent breakthroughs in robotic mobility have not stemmed from increasingly faster micro-processors, but from advances in our understanding of how biological systems move, and from the development of tractable mathematical models of their motion. What is now needed is a coherent algorithmic understanding of how to effectively implement these discoveries and models in the design and construction of smart dynamic systems.
Despite the fact that we have been able to build machines with greater total mechanical power than animals for almost 200 years, we still lack the ability to match their specific power. In consequence, proper management of kinetic energy is essential for fast, agile locomotion. Since we cannot afford to employ motors as animals do muscles to store and actively dissipate energy, we must carefully consider the use of structural elements to redirect forces and augment stability.
Our particular areas of interest include the role of passive dynamic elements in robotics--understanding how directional mechanical impedance affects the dynamics of motion, and how to design and build structures with appropriate energy management schemes that can be recruited effectively by algorithmically guided actuators.