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NASA's Bouncy Super Ball Bots May be Planetary Rovers of the Future [VIDEO]

Dec 30, 2013 02:18 PM EST

Future models of planetary rovers such as NASA's Curiosity or China's Yutu rover may look less like clunky wheeled robots and more like sleek rotating orbs, according to design plans for the Super Ball Bot, a machine being developed at NASA's Ames Research Center for future extraterrestrial missions.

Prototypes of the Super Ball Bot look rather dainty compared to the planetary rovers in use today, but scientists say that is exactly what will enable the next generation of rover to excel.

Aesthetically, the Super Ball Bot is a grand departure from its rover predecessors, abandoning wheels for a system of flexible rods and cables. Finely attuned motors can alter the length of the rods, enabling the rover to alter its rigidity. The concept, which is referred to as "tensegrity" will enable the device to survive hard landings, as well as generate the momentum to move over or around obstacles.

A current project going on at the Intelligent Systems Division at Ames is developing a mission where a Super Ball Bot bounces to a landing on a planet from as high as 60 miles above the surface. The rover would compress and bounce repeatedly until it comes to rest, with its extremely pliable exoskeleton preventing damage to delicate observation instruments stored in the machine's core.

"Ideally teams of dozens or even hundreds of small, collapsible robots, weighing only a few kilograms a piece, will be conveniently packed during launch and would reliably separate and unpack at their destination," NASA said in a statement.

"Current robot designs are delicate, requiring combinations of devices such as parachutes, retrorockets and impact balloons to minimize impact forces and to place a robot in a proper orientation," NASA continued. "Instead we propose to develop a radically different robot based on a 'tensegrity' built purely upon tensile and compression elements. These robots can be light-weight, absorb strong impacts, are redundant against single-point failures, can recover from different landing orientations and are easy to collapse and uncollapse. We believe tensegrity robot technology can play a critical role in future planetary exploration."

NASA singled out Saturn's largest moon Titan as a potential place where these Super Ball Bots could eventually be deployed. A full report of the Super Ball Bot can be read here.

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