We've seen some really unconventional robot designs in recent years, but NASA's highly conceptual Super Ball Bot takes the cake. Setting aside the constrained world of rigid robotics, this shape-changing machine would be driven by "tensegrity" technologies consisting of interlocking rods and cables.
The idea of tensegrities — structures with no rigid connections that are highly robust, light-weight, and deployable — was conceived by none other than Buckminster Fuller.
Researchers Vytas SunSpiral and Adrian Agogino from the Intelligent Systems Division of the NASA Ames Research Center are now tapping into this concept. They're designing a mission where a Super Ball Bot would bounce to a landing on a planet or moon, then shape-shift itself as it rolls to various locations of scientific interest. But because these unorthodox structures are hard to manoeuvre, the team is looking to control them using machine learning algorithms and neuroscience-inspired oscillatory controls known as Central Pattern Generators.
NASA envisions dropping these things on to the surface of Titan from a height of 62 miles (100 km) — and without parachutes. And because they can be folded tightly into small, compact balls, a single spacecraft could deliver multiple Super Ball Bots to an exploration site.
NASA recently gave a demo of the Super Ball Bot to IEE Spectrum:
All images NASA.