Super Ball Bot Tensegrity Robot For Solar System Exploration

The exploratory rovers of Titan won't look like RC toys (like those of Mars); but they might resemble another kind of child's toy. Take a look at Super Ball Bot, under study at NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts lab.


(Super Ball Bot video from NASA)

Small, light-weight and low-cost missions will become increasingly important to NASA's exploration goals for our solar system. Ideally teams of dozens or even hundreds of small, collapsable robots, weighing only a few kilograms a piece, will be conveniently packed during launch and would reliably separate and unpack at their destination.

Such teams will allow rapid, reliable in-situ exploration of hazardous destination such as Titan, where imprecise terrain knowledge and unstable precipitation cycles make single-robot exploration problematic. Unfortunately landing many lightweight conventional robots is difficult with conventional technology. Current robot designs are delicate, requiring combinations of devices such as parachutes, retrorockets and impact balloons to minimize impact forces and to place a robot in a proper orientation.

Instead we propose to develop a radically different robot based on a "tensegrity" built purely upon tensile and compression elements. These robots can be light-weight, absorb strong impacts, are redundant against single-point failures, can recover from different landing orientations and are easy to collapse and uncollapse. We believe tensegrity robot technology can play a critical role in future planetary exploration.

Longtime readers of Technovelgy may recall another prototype idea - TETWalker, a tetrahedral walker robot demonstrated in 2005. Take a look at this video of the prototype, posted in 2006.


(Super Ball Bot video from NASA)

Here's an updated video for TETWalker.

I think of these robots falling and whirling faster and faster, until I start thinking of the spider tripod robots of Arthur C. Clarke's 1972 blockbuster Rendezvous with Rama:

...each leg in turn acted as a pivot around which the creature whirled its body... it also seemed to him that every few 'steps' it reversed its direction of spin, while the three whips flickered over the ground like lightning as it moved.

Via NASA and Wired.

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