Elastic-instability-enabled locomotion

Published Date: 
February 23, 2021


Locomotion of an organism interacting with an environment is the consequence of a symmetry-breaking action in space-time. Here we show a minimal instantiation of this principle using a thin circular sheet, actuated symmetrically by a pneumatic source, using pressure to change shape nonlinearly via a spontaneous buckling instability. This leads to a polarized, bilaterally symmetric cone that can walk on land and swim in water. In either mode of locomotion, the emergence of shape asymmetry in the sheet leads to an asymmetric interaction with the environment that generates movement--via anisotropic friction on land, and via directed inertial forces in water. Scaling laws for the speed of the sheet of the actuator as a function of its size, shape, and the frequency of actuation are consistent with our observations. The presence of easily controllable reversible modes of buckling deformation further allows for a change in the direction of locomotion in open arenas and the ability to squeeze through confined environments--both of which we demonstrate using simple experiments. Our simple approach of harnessing elastic instabilities in soft structures to drive locomotion enables the design of novel shape-changing robots and other bioinspired machines at multiple scales.


Amit Nagarkar, Won-Kyu Lee, Daniel J Preston, Markus P Nemitz, Nan-Nan Deng, George M Whitesides, L Mahadevan