December 29, 2013 - A July NASA report on the Super Ball Bot said that lightweight and low-cost missions will become increasingly important to NASA's exploration goals. Current robot designs call for a combination of devices such as parachutes, retrorockets and impact balloons to minimize impact forces and to place a robot in a proper orientation. Is there a different model one can consider for future explorations to accommodate NASA goals? A detailed report in IEEE Spectrum looks at a team at NASA Ames Research Center who "suspect there might be a way to make solar system exploration much simpler and cheaper, by embedding science instruments inside a flexible, deformable robotic exoskeleton."
The researchers, who produced the NASA report, are focused on a promising way to explore the solar system. Namely, they are working on the Super Ball Bot fashioned on the concept of "tensegrity." IEEE Spectrum noted the term was coined by architect Buckminster Fuller, in reference to the words "tensional" and "integrity."
This would be a robot built upon tensile and compression elements. The key advantages to their Super Ball Bot would be in its ability to take on the dual role of landing and mobility efficiently. "Such robots can be both a landing and a mobility platform allowing for dramatically simpler mission profile and reduced costs," the report said. In brief, the robot could take on multiple functions in one structure.
Adrian Agogino, Vytas SunSpiral, and David Atkinson, authors of the NASA report, said, "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." The team offered a scenario where the robot could be collapsed to a very compact configuration for launch and would pop open and drop to the surface, flexing and absorbing the force of impact.