NASA team studies ball bot as future space explorer

Dec 28, 2013 by Nancy Owano weblog

(Phys.org) —A July NASA report on the Super Ball Bot said that lightweight and low-cost missions will become increasingly important to NASA's exploration goals. Current robot designs call for a combination of devices such as parachutes, retrorockets and impact balloons to minimize impact forces and to place a robot in a proper orientation. Is there a different model one can consider for future explorations to accommodate NASA goals? A detailed report in IEEE Spectrum looks at a team at NASA Ames Research Center who "suspect there might be a way to make solar system exploration much simpler and cheaper, by embedding science instruments inside a flexible, deformable robotic exoskeleton."

The researchers, who produced the NASA report, are focused on a promising way to explore the solar system. Namely, they are working on the Super Ball Bot fashioned on the concept of "tensegrity." IEEE Spectrum noted the term was coined by architect Buckminster Fuller, in reference to the words "tensional" and "integrity."

This would be a built upon tensile and compression elements. The key advantages to their Super Ball Bot would be in its ability to take on the dual role of landing and mobility efficiently. "Such robots can be both a landing and a mobility platform allowing for dramatically simpler mission profile and reduced costs," the report said. In brief, the robot could take on multiple functions in one structure.

Adrian Agogino, Vytas SunSpiral, and David Atkinson, authors of the NASA report, said, "Ideally, teams of dozens or even hundreds of small, collapsable robots, weighing only a few kilograms a piece, will be conveniently packed during launch and would reliably separate and unpack at their destination." The team offered a scenario where the robot could be collapsed to a very compact configuration for launch and would pop open and drop to the surface, flexing and absorbing the force of impact. Once on the surface, the ball would roll around without wheels, able to effectively maneuver its movements in the environment, extricating itself from soft sand or other challenging surfaces.

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While there are no wheels to it, the ball is compared as one single wheel, moving along, and making use of its rods to push and pull itself out of difficult spots. The ball can leverage its network of rods and cables to move as it needs to. Another advantage in its structure is that the more, the better, for the mission: Single-robot explorations are problematic when there is imprecise knowledge of terrain and unstable precipitation cycles. Teams of dozens or hundreds of such robots could instead explore a hazardous destination.

Earlier this year, the team was awarded a Phase II grant to continue the research, in their efforts to build this "tensegrity" robot. Vytas SunSpiral and Agogino in a recent video described their work, also described in detail in IEEE Spectrum. If all goes well, said the IEEE report, "Titan might one day seen an armada of tumbleweed-like robotic explorers, hunting for evidence of life on the hazy moon." The goal has been a Super Ball robot capable of sustaining large falls, rolling over a range of terrains, and protecting a payload of instruments.

In a bigger picture view, in a Google Tech Talk that SunSpiral gave in November, he said that "The big story that we are dealing with" in the robot world is a generation shift, from traditionally made rigid systems using engineering tools and techniques, to a move toward "softer, more compliant systems." Robots are being taken out of structured laboratories to grapple with the more natural world. In turn, one can see how the NASA team is investigating how that shift relates to space robotics.

Explore further: Valkyrie steps forth as DARPA robotics contender

More information: www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/2012_phase_I_fellows_agogino.html#.Ur4w5fRDsu5
www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/cct/technology/stp/earlystage/niac_superbot_prt.htm
spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/military-robots/nasas-squishable-ball-bot-could-explore-titan

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User comments : 9

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Returners
1 / 5 (3) Dec 28, 2013
Well, there are some obvious benefits of this design, but some things which may become problematic might include orientability of instruments onboard, as well as carrying capacity, not to mention power supply. It will need either solar power or nuclear (RTG). Doesn't look big enough to use RTG, so that implies panels, which given the nature of the design, they'd need to be very small, else they wouldn't be protected from the impact. Of course, smaller panels means less power, therefore with this design you have two goals which are anti-synergistic.
goracle
not rated yet Dec 28, 2013
Well, there are some obvious benefits of this design, but some things which may become problematic might include orientability of instruments onboard, as well as carrying capacity, not to mention power supply. It will need either solar power or nuclear (RTG). Doesn't look big enough to use RTG, so that implies panels, which given the nature of the design, they'd need to be very small, else they wouldn't be protected from the impact. Of course, smaller panels means less power, therefore with this design you have two goals which are anti-synergistic.

I am not sure that the size portrayed is the maximum size that is possible. Regarding solar panels, the traditional flat kind would present problems of orientation when the robot is moving, though this design would seem to allow for optimal orientation when static compared to panels that lie flat on a wheeled probe. Perhaps the idea is to use other kinds of photovoltaics that can be shaped or are flexible? Perhaps beamed power?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Dec 28, 2013
Regarding solar panels

Problem would be that you'd be dragging your panels accross the ground a lot of the time (which would make them dirty or outright damage them - especially if you're doing the 'dropping off a cliff' thing mentioned in the movie.)
Another thing I'm curious about: They depict the payload being at the center connected by cables. How to keep that pointed in a way you want would be tricky. One could gimbal mount it - but that would be nechanically complex and also would make it more difficult for scientific instruments to get close to objects of study.

The motion idea is pretty neat, nevertheless. Could be tested as an underwater surface exploration device?
davidivad
1 / 5 (1) Dec 28, 2013
i would consider using nuclear batteries for this design. while they are low output, they can last decades. this design promotes a compact architecture good for multiple vehicles. they really thought outside the box on this one. antialias makes a good point about the tool orientation. i think this will be based on the complexity of the cable system. it would have been useful if they had generated a simulation that better describes this relationship in the performance of the vehicle.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Dec 29, 2013
It will need either solar power or nuclear (RTG). Doesn't look big enough to use RTG

Why would you say that? The smallest rtg weighed 2.1 kg and put out upwards of 3 watts.
Problem would be that you'd be dragging your panels accross the ground a lot of the time
NASA is working on

"the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG), is based on a 55-watt electric converter. The thermal power source for this system is the General Purpose Heat Source (GPHS). Each GPHS contains four iridium-clad Pu-238 fuel pellets, stands 5 cm tall, 10 cm square and weighs 1.44 kg"

-One possible variety is an LENR core which coincidentally NASA is also working on. Batteries are also a possibility.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Dec 29, 2013
nuclear battery
What, this?

"(Phys.org) —Experts in nuclear physics at the University of Surrey have helped develop research towards a 'nuclear battery', which could revolutionize the concept of portable power by packing in up to a million times more energy compared to a conventional battery."

-Still a pipe dream.
Returners
1 / 5 (3) Dec 29, 2013
I doubt a few watts is enough to power that design. After all, it is sacrificing the efficiency of a true wheel in order to have flexibility and grappling ability for all terrain purposes. Because tensions are being applied in vectors which are not parallel with the direction of travel, it means you're looking at significantly reduced mechanical efficiency compared to conventional forms of locomotion, at least on flat surfaces, obviously on rugged terrain this thing would make most conventional locomotion look pathetic.

There are other problems to consider with this design as well. If a six-wheeled rover has one wheel lock up or otherwise fail, it can still function with a high level of capabilities, as was seen with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. If one of the servos on this thing fails, it will likely cripple the entire machine, since it's motion requires much more complex coordination, with many moving parts working together.
Returners
1 / 5 (3) Dec 29, 2013
By LENR, I think you are referring to the so-called "Heavy Electron" method NASA has researched and discussed, which was publicized about the time Rossi started making his Nickel-Hydrogen claims. I am not aware of any functional device being declared by NASA. Additionally, we know NASA and the military have, at times, put out technical mis-information in the past to confuse and mis-direct other nation's engineers, a notable example being fake stealth technology, something I hadn't really considered previously.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Dec 29, 2013
By LENR, I think you are referring to the so-called "Heavy Electron" method NASA has researched and discussed, which was publicized about the time Rossi started making his Nickel-Hydrogen claims. I am not aware of any functional device being declared by NASA. Additionally, we know NASA and the military have, at times, put out technical mis-information in the past to confuse and mis-direct other nation's engineers, a notable example being fake stealth technology, something I hadn't really considered previously.
No dweeb google 'NASA' and 'LENR' and see what you find.
I am not aware of any functional device being declared by NASA
Didnt claim there was. Theres no functional ball bot yet either is there?
I doubt a few watts is enough to power that design
Yeah. And youre the guy who wants NASA to retrieve a differentiated asteroid of 1000km diameter because anything less would be as you say a 'waste of time' yes?

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