redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
While it might look like a squishable mess of ropes and tent poles, NASA’s proposed “Super Ball Bot” could hold the key to making landing a rover on another planet easier and far less expensive, according to a new report published last week in IEEE Spectrum, the journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Under ideal circumstances, modern-day planetary rovers “can require careful choreography of multiple landing stages and involve parachutes, airbags, and retrorockets,” writer Rachel Courtland explained. Once landed, the vehicle would then have to traverse steep terrain that can make a journey slow and arduous.
However, researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center told Courtland that they are working on a robotic exoskeleton that is flexible and capable of changing its shape – the aforementioned Super Ball Bot. The device will be able to land unassisted and is capable of absorbing impact, eliminating the need for landing gear.
The Super Ball Bot would have all of the scientific instruments required to complete its mission embedded directly into its exoskeleton, and as demonstrated by a prototype unit in recently-released video footage, the robot would be capable of changing the length of its cables in order to roll around a planet’s surface without requiring wheels.
“Made up of hollow cylindrical rods connected by flexible materials such as elastic cable, the clever design draws on the principles of ‘tensegrity’ (a combination of ‘tensional’ and ‘integrity’), allowing any impact to be safely absorbed along multiple paths,” Trevor Mogg of Digital Trends explained. NASA believes it could survive a 60-plus mile drop onto a planet’s surface.
Super Ball Bot is being co-developed by Vytas SunSpiral and Adrian Agogino at the Ames Intelligent Systems Division. Earlier this year, they were awarded a Phase II grant to continue the research, said Phys Org’s Nancy Owano.
According to RT.com, NASA is considering using it for an expedition on Neptune’s moon, Titan. Titan could be a good test for the rover, the website said, because the moon’s dense nitrogen atmosphere would cushion the vehicle’s fall, and it would likely have an easier time traveling on the surface than its traditional wheeled counterparts.
“Another advantage of NASA’s ball bot is its small size when packed, with the space agency envisioning sending hundreds of them on a single mission. Upon arrival their destination, the bots would be able to automatically spring into shape,” Mogg said.
While movement needs to be perfected before the new-type rovers could be deployed, “there’s an excellent chance that these remarkable collapsing robots will one day be rolling across faraway planets and moons, sending back information that could help us unlock the enduring mysteries of our solar system and beyond,” he added.