Exceptional performance is often considered to be elegant and free of ‘errors’ or missteps. During the most extreme escape behaviours, neural control can approach or exceed its operating limits in response time and bandwidth.

We discovered that small, rapid running cockroaches use robust exoskeletons like automobile bumpers to collide head-on into obstacles and transition up a vertical wall at the fastest escape speeds possible. Instead of avoidance, animals rely on passive body shape and compliance to negotiate challenging environments.

Inspired by the animal's behaviour, we demonstrate a passive, high-speed, mechanically mediated vertical transitions with a small, palm-sized legged robot. By creating a collision model for animal and human materials, we suggest a size dependence favouring mechanical mediation below 1 kg that we term the ‘Haldane limit’.

Relying on the mechanical control offered by soft exoskeletons represents a paradigm shift for understanding the control of small animals and the next generation of running, climbing and flying robots where the use of the body can off-load the demand for rapid sensing and actuation.

BREAKING: Our work just got published as an article in JRSI! If you are a journalist interested in this work, please visit our press website.