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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 from the Virtual Technology Laboratory at the 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!

Posted in Robots, Tensegrity.

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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.

Posted in Robots, Tensegrity.

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Robot Books for Kids!

Wow, so many things to share!  Five months ago our son was born, and now our research is showing up in kids books everywhere! I’m really excited about this, and the opportunity to inspire future generations of robotics engineers and researchers!

I’m especially pleased by the newest book published by Scholastic: “Really? Robots” — I contributed a section on our robots, helped edit the overall book, and wrote the forward. It is a fun and inspirational book with an overview of many different types of robots and how they function. Besides the joy of inspiring future generations of robot builders, I’m also honored by the credit they have given me:


And before I even had my own copy of the book I got a request for an autograph from my first fan!  I ended up inviting Lilly to visit our lab so that she could see the robots in person.  It was delightful to see how excited she was from the experience, and I hope it inspires her to think more about robots and intelligence.

And this week, KQED published a blog post about our research and our collaboration with UC Berkeley.

It was a great article, and is geared at inspiring elementary school kids. They are working on an e-book for science teachers to include in classroom education, and so I’m excited to see that coming out soon.

Along with the blog post, they made this really excellent video:

And finally, if all this inspirational content is enough to excite a young engineer into action, another book was recently published on Making Simple Robots! This is a great book with simple instructions and includes a project for making a tensegrity robot!

So, all together, it is really joyful to be finding ways to share the inspiration of our robotics research with students from all age groups — from post-docs to pre-school! Enjoy, and please share these resources with the young engineers and curious learners in your life!

Update: There is another kids book that I helped with that has been published, this one on Space Exploration and the Solar System.  In this case my role was a fact checker for the primary author, Susan Hayes, verifying that the facts she included were correct.  It is a really fun book called “Space Adventure” and is a bit of an activity book too, with tear out pages to make things, stickers, etc.

Posted in Robots, Tensegrity.

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Hardware Validation of Tensegrity Simulator

When developing a new simulator, it is important to constantly verify with real hardware implementations that the resulting simulations are a reasonable reflection of reality, and not just pretty movies. We learned this early on when our first tensegrity robot simulations turned out to be violating basic laws of physics by harnessing “free-energy” generated by the unrealistic cable models built into the Bullet Physics Engine. We then spent significant time developing new and realistic elastic cable models which actually followed the laws of physics and didn’t introduce new energy into the system. In a prior paper we reported on motion capture experiments which validated that our NASA Tensegrity Robotics Toolkit matched the behavior of our six strut ReCTeR robot to within 1.3% error on position through dynamic motions.

The following video shows recent experiments to verify the behavior of our tensegrity “spine” simulations. As you will see in the following video, the basic behaviors of the simulation match well to the hardware prototype that we developed. Given that hardware is expensive to build, we made a 3 segment prototype which shows close agreement to our simulated 3-segment models, and thus we feel confident that the behavior of our larger simulated spines are realistic. The second video below shows some of those larger spine simulations which are controlled via neuroscience inspired “Central Pattern Generator” control networks.

Our full sized tensegrity spine simulations which shows their reactive adaptation to different terrains.

Posted in Bodies, Robots, Tensegrity.

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