NASA’s New Robot Prototype Looks Like a Pile of Drunk Sticks

12.27.13 Andy Cush

NASA’s SuperBall Bot is no WALL-E.While something like the Mars Curiosity Rover is cute, all spindly legs and easily anthropomorphizable camera eyes, the SuperBall is decidedly not. It looks like a broken tent, or a pile of twigs who had too much tequila to drink.

Developed by Adrian Agogino and Vytas SunSpiral (!!!) at NASA’s Ames Research center, the odd-looking bot represents a “biologically-inspired” way of looking at robotics, SunSpiral says in the above video. Researchers control the SuperBall’s movements by shortening and lengthening the cables that connect its rods, resulting in a kind of erratic rolling.

The SuperBall was conceived in part because of the system’s ability to withstand impact, which could simplify planetary or lunar landings. “In traditional NASA missions, landing is one of the most difficult, expensive, unreliable things about a mission,” says Agogino. “This is a fundamentally simple landing system. If you can survive a hard landing, and you keep that system, you can survive almost anything.”

The team hopes to eventually land the bot on Saturn’s moon Titan. IEEE Spectrum explains:

In a scenario studied by the team, the robot could be collapsed to a very compact configuration for launch. Once it reaches the moon, it would pop open and drop to the surface, flexing and absorbing the force of impact. By shortening and lengthening the cables that connect its rigid components, the ball bot could then roll about the surface. These same cables could be used to pull back parts of the robot, so that science instruments at the center could be exposed and used.