It’s not often that a baby toy inspires the next concept for a space exploration robot, but that is just what happened with the Super Ball Bot design. It was a tensegrity toy, specifically, that Adrian Agogino and Vytas Sunspiral (real name) of NASA’s Intelligent Systems Division were tossing around the office when the idea was hatched. Tensegrity toys are those multi-angled messes of mini-bungee cords and wooden tubes that you can crush in your hands only to have them immediately pop back into shape upon release. While handling said toy and noting its flexibility, Agogino and Sunspiral realized this design might make for a great terrestrial robot. The Super Ball Bot was underway.
Remember these? (Spacekraft)
The most appealing element of Super Ball Bot is its departure from traditionally rigid structures like the Mars rovers. The rovers’ heavy, tank-like designs make them prone to sustaining injury and/or getting stuck in hazardous landscapes. The Super Ball Bot instead relies on a sphere-like matrix of cables and joints that adjust their lengths to move the body in a given direction. Since this frame distributes the structure’s weight more evenly, pressure is not concentrated on any one part like a wheel or gear. At the center of each high-tech tumbleweed would be a bundle in instruments which would presumably remain safe from its potentially treacherous surroundings – just like American Gladiators are inside their Altraspheres.
(NASA, IEEE Spectrum)
This new design is especially attractive for a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. If you think the conditions on Mars suck for bots, wait until you meet Titan. The moon is covered in lakes of liquid methane and ethane, creating a marshy surface laden with hazards. It’s basically an even less appealing Dagobah. This type of environment is not suitable for a traditional rover, but Super Ball Bot’s light weight means that rolling over a soft patch of methane-sodden ground wouldn’t cause it to sink down and get stuck.
Provided the onboard instruments remained unharmed, the Super Ball Bot could be handled rather roughly compared to it’s predecessors. (NASA)
Landing the bots onto alien surfaces could also be a breeze. Instead of relying on parachutes and landing gear, the Super Ball Bots could simply be chucked out of a space craft above a planet’s surface and hit the ground rolling. Their low weight means that the even a relatively long drop wouldn’t necessarily create an impact forceful enough to damage them.
Have we met the new face of terrestrial investigators? Could this mean the days of precarious machinery landings are numbered? What other baby toys could serve as inspiration for planetary surface explorers? Rubber Ducky Rovers!?