Robotic tumbleweeds will explore the galaxy for us

Because what would a frontier be like without 'em?

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr

Sending robots on planetary missions has been a thing for decades, but the space agencies responsible are always looking for ways to refine the technology. A new concept from NASA could see a way out of the restrictions of tread-based locomotion.

The Super Ball Bot has been in development since at least 2012, and is centred around the idea of a ball-shaped robot that "bounces to a landing on a planet, then deforms itself to roll to locations of scientific interest," wrote Vytas SunSpiral of the Intelligent Robotics Group.

The design is based on tensengrity, a term coined by Buckminster Fuller to describe a structure consisting of isolated components held together by the tension of a net. This is the Super Ball Bot, a structure that can bounce and roll its way around just like a tumbleweed. The team is currently experimenting with using machine learning algorithms and artificial central pattern generators.

It's still in development, with the team hoping to improve stability, efficiency and handling, as well as improved learning algorithms. Meanwhile, those suit designers at NASA had probably better get to work on designing a space Stetson and cowboy boots...