A proposed robot that could explore Mars by cartwheeling over the surface of the Red Planet takes its inspiration from an African spider that uses the same technique to escape from predators.
Discovered in 2009 in the deserts of Morocco, it was dubbed the flic-flac spider for a gymnastic term for a backward handspring.
The spider, which has just been given its scientific name, Cebrennus rechenbergi, can double its forward motion from a walking speed of 3.3 feet a second to a quick 6.6 feet a second when using its cartwheeling trick.
To do its cartwheel trick, the spider will run a short distance, throw its front legs into the air and leap into a forward somersault, landing on its hind legs. The spider can accomplish the maneuver on flat ground, downhill and even uphill.
The spider's discoverer, German bionics engineer Ingo Rechenberg, is working to develop a robot version of the cartwheeling spider, saying such a means of locomotion would be an advantage in a device meant to navigate the rough surface condition on Mars.
It could work in other environments as well, says Rechenberg, who teaches biomimetics at the Technical University of Berlin, a field that looks to animals to inspire new robotic modes of action.
Such a tumbling robot "may be employed in agriculture, on the ocean floor, or even on Mars," he says.
Tumbling or rolling puts more of such a robot in contact with the surface it's moving over, spreading its weight over a larger area for better traction and weight distribution than wheels or legs can offer.
Animals that live in the harsh environments of the world's deserts often evolve unique strategies meant to conserve energy, Rechenberg says, which is why he has spent a career studying them.
"That's the reason I have gone every year for more than 30 years -- to find out what the animals do to save energy," he says.
The spider has inspired him to create a prototype robot, 10 inches in length, that moves across the ground using the same technique as the cartwheeling spider.
He's dubbed the robot Tabbot, taken from tabacha, which means spider in the local Berber language in Africa. Tabbot can move forward both by walking and by somersaulting. A study on the new spider was also published in the online journal Zootaxa. The study was authored by Senckenberg Research Institute spider specialist Peter Jäger.