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New Video Highlighting Jonathan Bruce’s Research

Jonathan Bruce is a UC Santa Cruz PhD student who has been a central member of my lab for many years now. He has been instrumental to all of our successes, and is a gifted mechatronics engineer who is pushing the boundaries of tensegrity robotics design and control. The UARC program is a mechanism by which UC Santa Cruz and other UC campuses collaborate with NASA Ames, and they recently choose to highlight his innovative work and contribution to NASA’s research success. They sent a film crew to interview him and get context on our broader research project, including our collaboration with the BAIR and BEST labs at UC Berkeley. The resulting video is a *really* excellent overview of our research and well worth watching.

Finally: A Big THANK YOU to Jonathan for all his contributions!
Check out the many Journal and Conference publications he has led or co-authored.

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Related Projects by Collaborators

Happy New Year!
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the tensegrity robotics related work by some of our many inspired collaborators. First of all, I’m excited to introduce Dr. Julian Rimoli of Georgia Tech, who has developed some excellent new tools for analyzing the structural response of a tensegrity robot when it lands on another planet. The resulting video of its dynamics is excellent.

This is what Julian has to say about his work:

“Most approaches to modeling tensegrity structures assume their bars are rigid, and that they only experience pure axial loads. In addition, a common design constraint is assuming that the structure would fail if any of its members buckle. The first two assumptions break down under highly dynamic events such as impacts, and the third one is not necessarily true: slender bars can sustain a load after failure, and consequently stresses would redistribute without necessarily producing structural failure. This video shows an example of a light-weight tensegrity structure under a highly dynamic event. The model accounts for the body forces and associated bending on bars, and their buckling and post-buckling behavior. The ground is modeled as elastic with friction. For those interested, details of the model will be presented at SciTech in January 2016.”

Next, Julian made a great video from the perspective of a camera mounted at a centrally suspended payload during the same landing event as the video above. This shows what the point of view might be for navigation purposes if you gimbaled the camera to stay stable while the robot bounced and rolled. This is a 360 degree video, so you can use the arrows to change the direction that you are looking out from the robot.

Finally, another video of his shows how waves of landing forces might propagate in an interesting manner through the tensegrity robot, making it appear to “inch-worm” its way back up into the air. Once again, this shows how unique and surprising these structures can be!

Next I would like to share the work of a team led by Will Buchanan who built an amazing tensegrity art structure and took it out to the Burning Man festival, where folks could climb and play on it.

Two members of our lab were part of the effort — Ken Caluwaerts and Atil Iscen, both of whom have contributed to the design and control of our SUPERball robot here at NASA.  Best of all, Will and his team captured all the details and lessons learned from creating this giant tensegrity sculpture into an Instructable.  Now you can go make your own giant tensegrity sculpture and have your friends play on it!

Finally, I would like to highlight some recent work by Ryan Adams, who has been an amazing contributor to the development of our open source physics based tensegrity robotics simulator (NTRT — the NASA Tensegrity Robotics Toolkit).  Inspired by our use of coupled oscillators in the controls of tensegrity robots, he has been exploring the dynamics of fields of coupled oscillators.  What is fascinating is how stable dynamic patterns readily emerge out of a randomly seeded field.  This is not just the simple case of all the oscillators synchronizing with each other, but rather the emergence of stable repeating complex patterns, as shown in the video below.


OSim Demo #1 (64×64 grid, 2d) from Ryan Adams on Vimeo.

I think that this is a very important line of research for the understanding of neuroscience and the fundamentals of how we control motion — where a coordinated set of actions must be generated by a very noisy and error prone computational system (our neurons). This ability to start with a random set of oscillators, and have it settle into a stable behavior is exactly what would enable the robust and reliable behavior of animals despite the noisy reality of our neurons. This is obviously just an early stage exploration of the key principles, and a long way from a full theory of neuroscience, but it is valuable to see the key properties at play.

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SUPERball Videos

Below are two videos related to our SUPERball Tensegrity Robot. First is a “mission concept” video, which shows how SUPERball could be used to land on another planet at high speeds, and then used for exploration, and the second video is actual footage of our first prototype showing baby steps on both the landing and exploration capabilities.

Mission Concept Video
One of the key things to take away from this video is that once you have a robot that is so robust that it can safely land at high speeds after falling from orbit, it can also move and explore in ways that would be impossible with a traditional rover. For example, it could dynamically leap into a crater and expect to survive the fall, considering that it is designed to fall from orbit. This video was initially created by our Collaborators at University of Idaho (John Crepeau, John Anderson, Dr. Stephen Howe, and the Tensegrity ME Capstone and VTD Aerospace Capstone teams).


Prototype SUPERball Landing and Locomotion Video
Concept Videos are important, but real engineering is better! This video is a demonstration of the first SUPERball prototype showing initial examples of impact robustness (driving off a loading dock) and locomotion. This prototype was developed specifically to address foundational engineering concepts related to locomotion of tensegrity robots, such as sensor and actuator design, controllability, and system performance analysis. While this prototype was not explicitly designed to withstand the high speed landing scenarios envisioned for the full system, we see that it can easily survive falls of a meter, which would seriously damage most traditional robots. A future prototype will integrate lessons learned from this iteration, and will incorporate a number of design features to enable high-speed landing scenarios.


When the prototype video above was posted on the NASA Spacetech Website, it led to the predictable wave of media attention. Of the many news stories which covered our work, I was particularly impressed with the story written by Gizmodo — they actually did their own research and included ideas from Buckminster Fuller about floating tensegrity cities! .

Another article I really liked was the one by Inverse — because they highlighted the following quote about our research: “We’ve broken all the rules of traditional robotics designs.” And that is true, and that is exactly what is fun, inspiring, and challenging about our research!

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Tensegrity Robots in Science Fiction!

One of the descriptions used by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program that has supported our research for the last three years is: “Science Fiction Becoming Science Fact!”

In a fun reversal, our “Science Fact” research has been turned into “Science Fiction” — Neal Stephenson has including rolling Tensegrity Robots modeled off our SUPERball design in his newest book Seveneves: A Novel

For those who do not recognize his name right away, Neal is a world famous science fiction author and wrote influential works such as Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon.

As soon as the book was published in May I had friends writing to me excited to see our ideas appearing in a Science Fiction novel by such a famous author!  How Fun!  So, I immediately ordered a copy of the book and read it.  It was a thrilling, edge of the seat, ride, (admittedly our tensegrity robots only play a small role in the storyline, but it is fun that they show up!) and I can strongly encourage anyone to buy a copy and enjoy it!

And,  while we are on the topic of PR and attention for our research, it is also fun to share the following article which was published in The American Scientist in July of 2015.

Stephen Piazza, “In-tense Robots — Motorized sculptures may represent our best chance for exploring the surfaces of other worlds.” The American Scientist.

And Finally, we recently gave a demonstration of our SUPERball tensegrity robot to Dava Newman, the Deputy Administrator of NASA.  That was fun.  She loved it.


You can also see more photos from her visit by our friends from the UC Berkeley BEST lab who participated in giving the Demo.


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