NASA's new robots may revolutionize space exploration

Ball bots could land on another planet fast and hard and move by rolling

NASA researchers are working on a whole new kind of robot - one that is spherical, travels by rolling and could land on a planet by simply hitting the surface and bouncing.

The concept is called tensegrities and focuses on robots, dubbed ball bots, made of a network of cables and rods. With no rigid connections, no legs, no wheels or tracks, they are uniquely robust, light-weight robots that can the force or pressure from coming out of orbit and hitting the surface of a planet.

"I've been looking at using this design principle in robotics because you see it used all through biology," said Vytas Sunspiral, a senior robotics researcher with NASA Ames Research Center. "We're finding evidence of it in the structure of our cells to the physiology of our muscles and bones."

He noted that one of the reasons biology would use this structure is because the tension network makes the body a robust system. "Using this principle, they can be lightweight compared to their strength," said Sunspiral. "The whole structure participates in absorbing applied pressures."

And that, he told Computerworld, makes this a uniquely apt design for robots.

"This could revolutionize how we explore space, quite possibly," said Sunspiral, who has been working on the tensegrity robotics project since its inception. "What we're doing here is putting multiple functions into a single structure. When you land on another planet, normally you have to do a lot to protect your rover. You have air bags or sky cranes or retro rockets. That adds a lot of mass for something you just use once during landing."

With a ball bot, NASA could skip using air bags or cranes and hit the surface of the planet fast and hard without suffering damage.

Today, NASA scientists are exploring Mars, using traditional robotic rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. They are wheeled machines that carry scientific instruments and use robotic arms.

A ball bot, by rolling, might be less likely to get stuck in soft sand, which is what led to the demise of the Mars rover Spirit. That rover was abandoned and left for dead after scientists weren't able to get it out of the Martian mire.

"One way to look at this robot is as one giant wheel," said Sunspiral. "It would be better at going around or over obstacles and would have advantages against getting stuck. We have to explore this further."

A ball bot, which is an outer shell of rods and cables, could carry another sphere inside, connected by cables to the outer shell. The bot's power, batteries, scientific equipment and computers would be in the inside sphere.

"The point isn't to deliver a robot to another world, but to deliver scientific instruments -- all the different things to decipher the history of this place you're exploring," said Sunspiral. "For its mass, we think we can deliver a much higher amount of scientific instruments. Up to 50% of the mass could be scientific instruments... as opposed to about 25% on Curiosity."

He added that research on the ball bot is still under way, so NASA isn't exactly how it would work or what it would carry. For instance, it could have a robotic arm or the rods that make up the sphere could be used to scoop up dirt.

Some ball bots could be small, like the size of a basketball, and carry a camera. Several of these small bots could be sent to a distant planet, asteroid or moon, landing in different places and sending back information from multiple locations.

According to Sunspiral, the research could be advanced enough by 2020 to begin discussions about getting ball bots mission ready. But launching a ball bot could be one to two decades away.

Here on Earth, the ball bots could have commercial uses. Sunspiral noted that they could be dropped from planes to explore hard-to-access areas. They also could be used to explore pipes, caves and tunnels.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "NASA's new robots may revolutionize space exploration" was originally published by Computerworld.

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