Landing a robot of any kind on another planet or moon is no easy -- or cheap -- feat. But researchers at NASA are developing a more economical solution to getting equipment onto extraterrestrial ground. The “Super Ball Bot,” a lightweight and extremely flexible rover, could make the trip without expensive parachutes, airbags or even retrorockets, which are used to decelerate space equipment as it plummets toward the ground.
How? According to a report published by a team of researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the Super Ball Bot, which looks something like a jumble of tent poles attached arbitrarily to one another, can absorb the impact of a drop of up to 60 miles above a planet’s surface. The rover would compress and bounce repeatedly until it came to a rest. Its extremely pliable exoskeleton would preserve any delicate observation instruments at its core.
“These robots can be lightweight, absorb strong impacts, are redundant against single-point failures, can recover from different landing orientations and are easy to collapse and uncollapse,” NASA said in a statement. “We believe tensegrity robot technology can play a critical role in future planetary exploration.”
Tensegrity is a technique for building a structure that uses compression elements to balance tensile force. It creates an “internal prestress” that stabilizes the entire configuration.
"With a tensegrity structure, the entire structure shares the burden of reducing that stress, which is what you see in human bodies," Vytas SunSpiral, one of the scientists responsible for the Super Ball Bot idea, said. SunSpiral and his team were recently awarded another grant to continue developing the Super Ball Bot.
The bot would travel across the extraterrestrial surface by deforming and reforming its frame -- a robotic ballet that, while somewhat awkward, would allow the robot to maneuver over multiple types of terrain.
The Super Ball Bot weighs just a few pounds and is small enough that multiple Super Ball Bots could be sent and released at once. Scientists say the rover could be used to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, which NASA has had its eye on for some time.