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In Brief: NASA's Super Ball Bot

By Norman Chan

Thinking beyond a wheeled rover.

NASA has employed wheeled rovers and humanoid robots to assist in space exploration, but it's really neat to see them explore robotic designs that don't conform to what we typically think of when we imagine a robot. The design of rovers like the MSL Curiosity make them good for multi-purpose functions--it's basically a science lab on wheels--but are costly to launch and deploy. A new Super Ball Bot design eschews rigid form for the idea of tensegrity: a structure that can compress and unfold on command. Think of it as a smart set of motorized and interlocking tent poles that can maneuver around uneven environments and reach places deemed too dangerous for wheeled robots. NASA engineers are figuring out how to adapt their traditional robotics know-how to this design concept, but are eyeing Titan as a potential first destination for this new type of robot. The following video from IEEE Spectrum shows a prototype Ball Bot in action.