'Super Ball Bot' Rover: NASA's Crazy Wheel-Free Robot Could Bounce Around Planets One Day [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on December 27, 2013 4:51 PM EST

super ball bot
The revolutionary Super Ball Bot could be rolling around other planets or moons one day. (Photo: NASA)

Not to knock the Mars Curiosity rover, which has done many cool things, but NASA is working on a new type of rover that makes Curiosity look like DOS-era technology. The conceptual Super Ball Bot, which is composed of interlocking rods and cables and looks sort of like those expanding and contracting toy spheres, throws out the idea of a wheeled rover and instead harnesses the potential of "tensegrity" robotics. According to NASA, "[t]ensegrities, which Buckminster Fuller helped discover, are counter-intuitive tension structures with no rigid connections and are uniquely robust, light-weight, and deployable."

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Vytas SunSpiral, the awesomely-named co-leader of the Super Ball Bot project for NASA's Ames Research Center, describes tensegrity robotics as taking biological concepts of how animals and humans move and applying them to robots to make them less, well, robotic.

"We have traditionally built robots in this very rigidly connected manner, where you have elements that are hinged together with motors," said SunSpiral in a NASA video. "But that's not how [humans] work. There's no pin that holds our bones together, there's no rigid hinge there. In fact, there's a lot of fluidity and freedom of motion between the bones, and that's well described as a tensegrity structure."

Of the many crazy things about the Super Ball Bot--just look at the thing--is that it can be dropped from a height of 62 miles onto a planet or moon with no parachute. That's in sharp contrast to a rover like Curiosity, which underwent a difficult parachute landing from the top of the Martian atmosphere down onto its surface, going from 13,000 MPH to zero MPH, all in a computerized ballet that couldn't involve intervention from mission control. It's no wonder that NASA called the landing of Curiosity "seven minutes of terror."

And unlike traditional rovers, where you put all your eggs in one basket and hope that after it lands, your extraordinarily expensive robot actually works (Curiosity cost $2.5 billion), multiple Super Ball Bots could be dropped onto a planet or moon. So even if one Super Ball Bot failed, NASA could still have a bunch of others rolling around collecting data.

"You could have a mission where you have four or five--or possibly if you made them small, dozens or hundreds--all going at the same time," said Adrian Agogino, co-leader of the Super Ball Bot project for the NASA Ames Research Center, in the video embedded below. "You can imagine many of these, they're all robust in themselves, they can all coordinate with each other and perform science quickly, and also reliably. If a few of them don't make it, it's okay. The others will coordinate and make up for that."

Another advantage of the Super Ball Bot is that it could be carried farther than a traditional rover. One of the obstacles of taking a rover to Saturn's moon Titan (which contains lakes of methane, and thus possible evidence of life) is that it's very far away. A traditional rover would be a heavy payload, and a rocket would require a challenging amount of fuel to carry such a rover. With a lightweight robot like Super Ball Bot, a rocket wouldn't require nearly as much fuel.

But how do you make a Super Ball Bot move around and control it? Well, the NASA scientists are still trying to figure that out. "This is so new," Agogino said in August. "[I]f you can do anything more than a twitching dead thing you're really ahead of the curve."

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