Laws of physics defied: Robotic motion in curved spaces move without pushing against something!

Researchers from the Geor­gia Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy have proven that robot­ic motion in curved spaces move with­out push­ing against some­thing. But physi­cists until recent­ly believed that when humans, ani­mals, and machines move through­out the world, they always push against some­thing, whether it’s the ground, air, or water that is con­stant, fol­low­ing the law of con­ser­va­tion of momentum.

Accord­ing to the study pub­lished in Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences on July 28, 2022, the team of researchers led by Zeb Rock­lin, assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the School of Physics at Geor­gia Tech cre­at­ed a robot con­fined to a spher­i­cal sur­face with unprece­dent­ed lev­els of iso­la­tion from its envi­ron­ment, so that these cur­va­ture-induced effects would predominate.

Stat­ing that we let our shape-chang­ing object move on the sim­plest curved space, a sphere, to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly study the motion in curved space, Rock­lin fur­ther said, “We learned that the pre­dict­ed effect, which was so counter-intu­itive it was dis­missed by some physi­cists, indeed occurred: as the robot changed its shape, it inched for­ward around the sphere in a way that could not be attrib­uted to envi­ron­men­tal interactions”.

The goal of the research was to deter­mine how an object trav­elled across a curved area. They let a set of motors trav­el along curved rails as mov­ing mass­es in order to restrict the object on the sphere with the least amount of con­tact or momen­tum exchange with the sur­round­ings. In order to ensure that the motors con­stant­ly move on a sphere, they next con­nect­ed this sys­tem holis­ti­cal­ly to a rotat­ing shaft. In order to reduce fric­tion, the shaft was sup­port­ed by air bear­ings and bush­ings, and the posi­tion of the shaft with respect to Earth’s grav­i­ty was altered in order to reduce any remain­ing grav­i­ta­tion­al force.

Grav­i­ty and fric­tion began to have a lit­tle effect on the robot as it moved for­ward after that. These forces hybridized with the cur­va­ture effects to cre­ate a pecu­liar dynam­ic that has qual­i­ties that nei­ther force could have cre­at­ed on its own. The study offers an impor­tant illus­tra­tion of how curved spaces are pos­si­ble and how they fun­da­men­tal­ly defy laws of physics and com­mon sense that are based on flat space. Rock­lin expects that future researchers will be able to inves­ti­gate these curved areas using the exper­i­men­tal meth­ods that have been created.

Although the effects are neg­li­gi­ble, as robot­ics becomes more accu­rate, under­stand­ing this cur­va­ture-induced effect may become extreme­ly rel­e­vant from a prac­ti­cal stand­point, much like how the slight fre­quen­cy shift brought on by grav­i­ty became essen­tial for GPS sys­tems to accu­rate­ly trans­mit their posi­tions to orbital satel­lites. Ulti­mate­ly, the prin­ci­ples of how a space’s cur­va­ture can be har­nessed for loco­mo­tion may allow space­craft to nav­i­gate the high­ly curved space around a black hole.

Accord­ing to Rock­lin, this research also relates to the ‘Impos­si­ble Engine’ study. “Its cre­ator claimed that it could move for­ward with­out any pro­pel­lant. That engine was indeed impos­si­ble, but because space­time is very slight­ly curved, a device could actu­al­ly move for­ward with­out any exter­nal forces or emit­ting a pro­pel­lant — a nov­el dis­cov­ery”, said Rocklin.

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