Indexed on: 12 Jul '14Published on: 12 Jul '14Published in: The Journal of experimental biology
The integration of information from dynamic sensory structures operating on a moving body is a challenge for locomoting animals and engineers seeking to design agile robots. As a tactile sensor is a physical linkage mediating mechanical interactions between body and environment, mechanical tuning of the sensor is critical for effective control. We determined the open-loop dynamics of a tactile sensor, specifically the antenna of the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana, an animal that escapes predators by using its antennae during rapid closed-loop tactilely mediated course control. Geometrical measurements and static bending experiments revealed an exponentially decreasing flexural stiffness (EI) from base to tip. Quasi-static experiments with a physical model support the hypothesis that a proximodistally decreasing EI can simplify control by increasing preview distance and allowing effective mapping to a putative control variable--body-to-wall distance--compared with an antenna with constant EI. We measured the free response at the tip of the antenna following step deflections and determined that the antenna rapidly damps large deflections: over 90% of the perturbation is rejected within the first cycle, corresponding to almost one stride period during high-speed running (~50 ms). An impulse-like perturbation near the tip revealed dynamics that were characteristic of an inelastic collision, keeping the antenna in contact with an object after impact. We contend that proximodistally decreasing stiffness, high damping and inelasticity simplify control during high-speed tactile tasks by increasing preview distance, providing a one-dimensional map between antennal bending and body-to-wall distance, and increasing the reliability of tactile information.