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Locomotion in Biorobotic and Somatic Systems Group

We study how animals move using non-invasive, state of the art, motion observation techniques (e.g. high speed video, pose estimation based on deep learning) both in their natural habitat and in the lab in cooperation with academic partners around the world. To better understand biological movement as observed first hand in natural systems through original discovery, we also build biorobotic models that emulate animal locomotion. Bodies are in nature are soft, and so our approach leverages advances in Soft Robotics. In this spirit, we make diverse soft ‘artificial muscles’ (actuators) and soft sensors. Discovery of principles of animal locomotion can then be transferred to biologically informed robots where advantageous. These robophysical models therefore serve as instruments of knowledge. Robotics-inspired Biology can help us better understand the spectacular and graceful movement observed in natural systems.

Locomotion in Biorobotic & Somatic Systems is an independent Max Planck Research Group at the interdisciplinary Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (formerly Metals and Materials Science). Leveraging expertise in diverse fields as biology and robotics, we explore the behavioural and morphological adaptations of natural systems, to achieve robust multimodal locomotion.

Richard Feynman famously said: “What I cannot create, I do not understand”. That is, if we cannot recreate how animals move, we have not understood precisely how it works. Curiosity driven fundamental research is therefore required to decipher how animals are able to gracefully navigate irregular terrain with such agility and robustness.

The past decade has presented a dramatic expansion in the development of mobile robots and the application of robotic systems to practical tasks. Despite the proliferation of computation and sensing at the small scale, robots still remain largely unable to access all but the most structured environments, and unable to reach the performances of natural systems. In turn, many of the biological mechanisms which allow animals to penetrate the natural world still remain poorly understood at the fundamental, biomechanical level. We believe that both challenges can be addressed with robophysical models; synthetic systems which serve as ’model animals’ for biology research, while also allowing mobile robots to approach biological capabilities. We investigate some of the most challenging locomotion behaviours observed in the natural world with a combination of biomimetic robots and studies of animal motion.

Current Biology