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. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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