NASA’s “Tensegrity” Robots

Buckmister Fuller invented Tensegrity, and a lot of other interesting ideas (and popularized the term “Spaceship Earth”). But as far as I know he didn’t get around to inventing  tensegrity robots!

Well, NASA is seriously working on robots based on these principles, for space exploration, which they call “SuperBall Bot Tensegrity Planetary Lander“. The robot is constructed of struts and cables, in a tensegrity ball which is light, packs up in a tiny space, and is quite bouncy – just the thing for transporting to and then dropping on planetary surfaces. They are rugged enough to not require complicated soft landings.

The struts are equipped with actuators which enable the TR’s to roll around the surface, with weird and complicated gates. There are actual demos!

The patterns of movement are not at all trivial, and human designers aren’t very good at programming them.  So…the NASA research team has used biomimetic evolutionary development to learn the best patterns for locomotion!

By the way, the NASA team has also released the NASA Tensegrity Robotics Toolkit (NTRT), which includes simulation code so you can design your own TRs. Cool! (I haven’t tried the NTRT myself.)

Looking at the videos of the demos, we can see that this is a bit of a bumpy ride. I haven’t investigated how much payload can be carried, but I have to wonder. Just how big would you need to build to carry a human passenger? Could it be steered by an onboard pilot?   The fact that no one actually needs to ride one of these means that we really have to try it, no?

 

Robot Wednesday

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