NASA Tensegrity robots

May 1, 2015
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Spring 2015

design team leaders | Lee-Huang Chen / Kyunam Kim

Based on a child’s toy and named after an idea first floated in the 1950s by the futurist architect Buckminster Fuller, tensegrity robots are inspiring new ways of thinking about the form and function of automated devices.

Tensegrity is the concept of finding the sweet spot between compression and tension, so that structures are flexible enough to adaptively respond to constraints and obstacles by changing form, yet maintain enough strength to spring back to a baseline structure once constraints are removed.

Tensegrity robot and toysTensegrity robots were inspired by children’s toys. (Photo by Noah Berger)Alice Agogino, mechanical engineering professor and director of the Berkeley Emergent Space Tensegrities Robots lab, has partnered with NASA Ames researchers (one of the researchers is her son, Adrian Agogino) to develop applications for tensegrity technology. “The insights that we gain from our prototype testing are being used to inform NASA’s larger production system,” Agogino says.

NASA is keenly interested in tensegrity robots because they can be folded, like flat-pack furniture, as payload on a spacecraft. At deployment time, the robots are unfolded and surface-bound cargo is suspended in the middle of the flexible structure. When dropped to the surface, the frame takes the brunt of the impact, cushioning its contents. Both bot and cargo arrive ready to move.

If a ball had bones, the resulting motion would probably resemble what a moving tensegrity robot looks like. Researchers call the motion “controlled punctuated rolling.” Agogino and her students are developing rapid prototyping kits and investigating other ways of deploying tensegrity robots, including for healthcare and education applications. “We are developing an open innovation approach to our rapid prototyping kit because we would like the designs and the do-it-yourself instructions to be available to other researchers and educators,” Agogino says.