NASA Might Send Spherical, Bouncing Tensegrity Robots to Explore Mars

Why drive over rocks when you can jump instead?

Julien Despois / YouTube

Move over, Curiosity: there could soon be a new rover lifting off to explore the galaxy. An innovative “tensegrity rover” could solve some of the big problems about space exploration, making the rover out of a series of cables and rods instead of a vehicle on wheels. It can bounce, brace for impact, and even scrunch itself up into a ball.

Four students at UC Berkeley have produced a video, uploaded Tuesday, that explains how tensegrity rovers could be used. The problem with traditional rovers, the video explains, is it’s hard to know what to do when it comes across an obstacle. Sure, it can try to roll over the obstacle, but that’s usually going to cause some damage. Instead, the design of tensegrity rovers mean it can throw itself over the object and land safely without causing much damage.

The video was produced by students at UC Berkeley’s BEST lab, which is conducting research into tensegrity robots. The lab has recorded video demonstrations of how these robots work in real life, and the results are fascinating:

The principles behind the robots are nothing new. Indeed, tensegrity is a principle employed by architects for years, where tense cables are touching and compressed cables are not touching. Australia’s Kurilpa Bridge uses tensegrity in its design to meet the challenges of supporting both road and pedestrian traffic in a small space.

Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, came up with the term and explained the ideas behind it in interviews. Whether Fuller would have expected his design to one day make its way to Mars, however, is a whole other story.

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