A review on locomotion robophysics: the study of movement at the intersection of robotics, soft matter and dynamical systems

Rep Prog Phys. 2016 Nov;79(11):110001. doi: 10.1088/0034-4885/79/11/110001. Epub 2016 Sep 21.


Discovery of fundamental principles which govern and limit effective locomotion (self-propulsion) is of intellectual interest and practical importance. Human technology has created robotic moving systems that excel in movement on and within environments of societal interest: paved roads, open air and water. However, such devices cannot yet robustly and efficiently navigate (as animals do) the enormous diversity of natural environments which might be of future interest for autonomous robots; examples include vertical surfaces like trees and cliffs, heterogeneous ground like desert rubble and brush, turbulent flows found near seashores, and deformable/flowable substrates like sand, mud and soil. In this review we argue for the creation of a physics of moving systems-a 'locomotion robophysics'-which we define as the pursuit of principles of self-generated motion. Robophysics can provide an important intellectual complement to the discipline of robotics, largely the domain of researchers from engineering and computer science. The essential idea is that we must complement the study of complex robots in complex situations with systematic study of simplified robotic devices in controlled laboratory settings and in simplified theoretical models. We must thus use the methods of physics to examine both locomotor successes and failures using parameter space exploration, systematic control, and techniques from dynamical systems. Using examples from our and others' research, we will discuss how such robophysical studies have begun to aid engineers in the creation of devices that have begun to achieve life-like locomotor abilities on and within complex environments, have inspired interesting physics questions in low dimensional dynamical systems, geometric mechanics and soft matter physics, and have been useful to develop models for biological locomotion in complex terrain. The rapidly decreasing cost of constructing robot models with easy access to significant computational power bodes well for scientists and engineers to engage in a discipline which can readily integrate experiment, theory and computation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't