Remember that high school challenge where you had to throw an egg off the roof and see if you could build something around it to prevent it from cracking?
NASA is thinking along those lines for its next rover. Engineers from the space agency are looking toward a bouncier, more organic structure than its vehicle-like rover predecessors.
The latest prototype, called the Tensegrity Robot, features cables and “tent poles” that protect a sphere in the middle that could hold the robot’s research instruments.
The cables shorten and lengthen again in order to move the robot forward. While it looks very clumsy, its ability to move fluidly protects its “payload” and absorbs shock much more easily than traditional vehicles. This is great for what NASA considers it most dangerous part of the mission: landing.
Adrian K. Agogino, a robot scientist at NASA Ames, explained in the video with IEEE Spectrum above that landing is made much easier because of how the rover absorbs the impact. It seems to compress and then bounce right off the surface until it becomes stable again — like a bouncy ball. This relieves other concerns about the rover falling off a cliff or handling otherwise rough terrain.
Curiosity, NASA’s rover currently on Mars, is very much the vehicle-type. During its landing, NASA engineers experienced what they call the seven minutes of terror, or the time it takes for the signal of a successful landing to reach Earth. Its landing, while successful, was extremely detailed using parachutes, rocket motors, and more to get the large vehicle to Mars’ surface.
It has six wheels and a body that supports a number of tools to analyze the Martian surface. It weighs nearly 2,000 pounds, is seven feet tall by nine feet wide, and ten feet long.
With the Tensegrity Robot, however, NASA could send multiple, smaller robots to a planet or moon’s surface to work in tandem.
Part of the draw back, and perhaps the opportunity, with Tensegrity, however, is that there are many more data points to consider when controlling the robot. Agogino explained that this makes it “flexible” albeit difficult to control. It also means NASA is looking into new ways to control these robots.
hat tip The Atlantic