The latest NASA robot to come on the scene has reportedly been inspired by the classic children’s toy, the super ball, and has been called a “drastic departure” from previous robotic technology. The new robot consists almost entirely of an interlocking system of rods and cables expanded and contracted by a series of small motors. The machine appears similar to a “jumble of tent poles” and some scientists believe that the lightweight design that is less expensive and easier to build than a traditional robot may just revolutionize the future of space exploration.
The Super Ball Bot project, as it has been deemed by NASA, relies on the architectural notion of “tensegrity” discovered, in part, by renowned American architect Buckminster Fuller. So-called “tensigrities” are capable of absorbing impact by distributing it throughout many paths in the structure and are easily deployable. The idea behind these latest robots is that they could be dropped to a bouncing landing on the planet set for exploration. This method of landing would be of great benefit to exploration projects as securing a controlled descent and avoiding damage to the craft is often one of the most costly and precisely focused aspects of such a mission. The need for expensive, bulky landing gear would be eliminated, as would the possibility of any malfunction occurring within it.
After landing, the robots would then be set to reform and roll themselves to sites of interest to their controlling scientists. It is believed that their flexible structure would allow them to explore areas of rough terrain thought to be too dangerous for existing NASA rovers. Such exploration might allow for close-up views of the undiscovered history and geology of planets as it has been previously inaccessible.
Controlling the robots is an issue of concern, however, as traditional methods of doing so are difficult with the tensegrity-based design. Leaders of the project for NASA are currently working on new ways to control the experimental machines “using machine learning algorithms and neuroscience inspired oscillatory controls.” These types of controls are known in the industry as Central Pattern Generators.
The Super Ball Bot is still deep in the development phase at NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program and it is expected to take at least another 10 years before such a robot is ready for launch. While research in the field has been ongoing for about a decade, taking the leap from theoretical technology to reality has only recently become a possibility. Scientists say that the robots are such a departure from the traditional approach that it is somewhat counter-intuitive to engineers working on the project who are “turning the world upside down” to get the job done.
As for a proposed destination for NASA’s super ball inspired robot, scientists reportedly have their eye on the planet Saturn’s moon, Titan. It is believed that Titan’s atmospheric conditions would allow for enough of a natural slow down due to air friction to allow the Super Ball Bot to essentially bounce to the surface for exploration. The robot would have to fall approximately 62 miles to Titan’s surface to complete its mission.
By Michele Wessel