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  1. Abstract

    This article is a historical perspective on how the study of the neuromechanics of insects and other arthropods has inspired the construction, and especially the control, of hexapod robots. Many hexapod robots’ control systems share common features, including: 1. Direction of motor output of each joint (i.e. to flex or extend) in the leg is gated by an oscillatory or bistable gating mechanism; 2. The relative phasing between each joint is influenced by proprioceptive feedback from the periphery (e.g. joint angles, leg load) or central connections between joint controllers; and 3. Behavior can be directed (e.g. transition from walking along a straight path to walking along a curve) via low-dimensional, broadly-acting descending inputs to the network. These distributed control schemes are inspired by, and in some robots, closely mimic the organization of the nervous systems of insects, the natural hexapods, as well as crustaceans. Nearly a century of research has revealed organizational principles such as central pattern generators, the role of proprioceptive feedback in control, and command neurons. These concepts have inspired the control systems of hexapod robots in the past, in which these structures were applied to robot controllers with neuromorphic (i.e. distributed) organization, but not neuromorphic computational units (i.e. neurons) or computational hardware (i.e. hardware-accelerated neurons). Presently, several hexapod robots are controlled with neuromorphic computational units with or without neuromorphic organization, almost always without neuromorphic hardware. In the near future, we expect to see hexapod robots whose controllers include neuromorphic organization, computational units, and hardware. Such robots may exhibit the full mobility of their insect counterparts thanks to a ‘biology-first’ approach to controller design. This perspective article is not a comprehensive review of the neuroscientific literature but is meant to give those with engineering backgrounds a gentle introduction into the neuroscientific principles that underlie models and inspire neuromorphic robot controllers. A historical summary of hexapod robots whose control systems and behaviors use neuromorphic elements is provided. Robots whose controllers closely model animals and may be used to generate concrete hypotheses for future animal experiments are of particular interest to the authors. The authors hope that by highlighting the decades of experimental research that has led to today’s accepted organization principles of arthropod nervous systems, engineers may better understand these systems and more fully apply biological details in their robots. To assist the interested reader, deeper reviews of particular topics from biology are suggested throughout.

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