Research, Technology & engineering

Shape-shifting robots? Child’s play

KQED video shows how a baby's toy could grow up to be a planet-mapping robot

Alice Agogino calls it a “six-bar tensegrity structure,” but it’s actually modeled on a baby’s toy. It’s a contraption in which rigid parts are held together not by nails or screws, but by wires, cables or elastic bands, lending it some remarkable properties. “It can be squashed, it can be dropped, it can change its shape,” says Agogino, a UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering.

And importantly, she adds, “you can actually make a structure like this walk.”

How could a child’s toy one day help us explore other planets? Alice Agogino, and others, explain.

In fact, Agogino and her fellow researchers envision tensegrity-structured robots walking not just in the lab, but on other planets, sending back data and samples and employing their unique ability to maneuver and navigate to create accurate maps of a planet’s surface.

As this video from KQED Quest makes clear, it will be some time before these highly sophisticated “toys” are ready to explore interplanetary space. But that’s exactly what her lab, in concert with a team at the Dynamic Tensegrity Robotics Lab at NASA Ames Research Center, are aiming toward.

“It’s a type of problem-solving where we look at the goal, and then we work backward creatively to look at different ways of achieving that goal,” Agogino says.

And then, wonders KQED, “Who knows what these robots could discover out there?”