The science behind how humans and some of our hominid ancestors such as Homo erectus have been walking for more than a million years has been figured out by scientists.
But new findings outline a specific interaction between the ankle, knee, muscles and tendons that improve the understanding of a leg moving forward in a way that maximizes motion while using minimal amounts of energy.
The research could find some of its earliest applications in improved prosthetic limbs, researchers in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, said.
Later on, a more complete grasp of these principles could lead to walking or running robots that are far more agile and energy-efficient than anything that exists today.
"Human walking is extraordinarily complex and we still don't understand completely how it works," Jonathan Hurst, an OSU professor of mechanical engineering and expert in legged locomotion in robots, said.
There's a real efficiency to it - walking is almost like passive falling. The robots existing today don't walk at all like humans, they lack that efficiency of motion and agility.
"When we fully learn what the human leg is doing, we'll be able to build robots that work much better," Hurst added.
Researchers have long observed some type of high-power "push off" when the leg leaves the ground, but didn't really understand how it worked. Now they believe they do.
The study concluded there are two phases to this motion. The first is an "alleviation" phase in which the trailing leg is relieved of the burden of supporting the body mass.
Then in a "launching" phase the knee buckles, allowing the rapid release of stored elastic energy in the ankle tendons, like the triggering of a catapult.
The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.