Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest kinetic sculptures instantly inspire awe and wonder, and rightly so. In describing the process used to design the original sculptures, he refers to using computational optimisation to derive the optimal dimensions for his linkages. This is a problem I particularly enjoy: using software algorithms to model and solve problems in the physical domain.
I therefore replicated a Jansen walker from scratch: I use a physics engine to simulate the movement and forces in a Jansen linkage, this is plugged into a genetic algorithm that optimizes for a smooth gait with acceptable torque requirements. Finally, I cut a set of parts to construct the physical implementation, thus crossing from the digital to the physical to test the final result.
The optimisation part of the problem itself is not particularly hard, as we are only dealing with 7 variables. However, assessing the fitness of a particular instance of the linkage requires some enjoyable subtleties: the joint needs to rotate smoothly, with as little torque as possible. The toe of the linkage also needs to be as level as possible while on the ground, stay on the ground for the portion of the stride where it is carrying weight, and clear the ground sufficiently so as to avoid tripping.