Nasa's tough and mobile 'jumble of tent poles' could be the future of space exploration

Described as 'a radical departure' from traditional robots, the Super Ball Bot (above) could one day help humanity explore distant planets
  • @jjvincent

Engineers and astronomers alike know that the future of space exploration is going to rely on robots, but what no-one really knows is what these machines will look like.

Rovers like the Mars Curiosity are heavy and slow while humanoid machines are incapable of even walking up a single step without being supervised by a gaggle of anxious engineers.

Now, a team of Nasa thinks it has the solution with a new form of robot that looks for all the world like a complicated and highly-mobile deckchair.

The prototype seen above is the Super Ball Bot, described by Nasa as “a radical departure from traditional rigid robotics to […] robots composed entirely of interlocking rods and cables”. Motors shorten and lengthen these cables to allow the ‘jumble of tent poles’ to move about while sensors could be suspended in the middle of the structure.

Integral to the design of the Super Ball Bot is ‘tensegrity’, an architectural concept that uses a combination of rigid components joined by flexible materials to distribute stress around a structure. Think of it like turning a whole object (or building) into one big shock-absorber, where the force of any impact is distributed along multiple paths.

Ugly as it is, the term ‘tensegrity’ was actually coined by architect Buckminster Fuller and is a portmanteau of the phrase ‘tensional integrity’. Some of the earliest examples tensegrity were artistic rather than architectural (in the 1940s Kenneth Snelson's sculptures began exploring what he called ‘floating compression) but the basic principle can be found through science and nature: tensegrity holds up underpins everything from bridges to the bones and ligaments of the human body.

For the Super Ball Bot this design has many advantages. Beyond being cheaper and easier to build, scientists could land such a device on alien worlds without having to worry too much about a controlled descent – a  procedure that is as costly in technical effort as it is risky for the craft.

If it was launched at a planet with enough of an atmosphere (eg Saturn’s moon, Titan, rather than Mars) the Super Ball Bot would slowed enough by air friction that it would essentially bounce when it hit the ground. Once landed it could use its unconventional design to navigate tricky terrain far more quickly than traditional designs.