NASA's Next Rover May Be This Crazy Walking Sphere

The future of space exploration might entail a machine called, literally, a "Super Ball Bot."

Biomimicry has taken us far in robotics. There's the snake. There's the mechanized pack animal. There's the birds, and the bees, and the fleas. And on and on. It makes sense that we would, in constructing our autonomous animals, imitate the highly evolved species of the natural world. 

Except … when it doesn't. Sometimes robots are at their most effective when they're self-consciously unnatural. 

Case in point: the Super Ball Bot. Which is the machine's actual name. It's a spherical robot currently under development at NASA's Ames Research Center for future interplanetary missions. Think of it like a rover ... in the form of a wobbly, occasionally bouncy ball. As NASA puts it

The Super Ball Bot project revolves around a radical departure from traditional rigid robotics to "tensegrity" robots composed entirely of interlocking rods and cables. Tensegrities, which Buckminster Fuller helped discover, are counter-intuitive tension structures with no rigid connections and are uniquely robust, light-weight, and deployable.

The main idea, as Geek.com explains it, is to avoid wheels—which are great for mobility, but which can also get stuck on things like rocks and crevices. The Super Ball Bot, as its name sort of suggests, is composed of flexible rods and cables—which are in turn attached to motors that alter both the cables' length and tension. That's the "tensegrity" idea: The Tinker Toy-like contraption can essentially alter its own rigidity according to the necessities of the moment. Need to cushion a hard landing? Reduce the rigidity. Need to tool around over an alien planet? Increase it. It's like several rovers in one—one Super Ball Bot, that is. 

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In