Shape-shifting robots designed for space exploration, can roll around on the moon

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BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA – Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley are developing shape-shifting robots for space exploration.

“It will be ridiculously inexpensive compared to the current rovers,” says Alice Agogino, a mechanical engineering professor at UC Berkeley. “We hope it will be more robust, will be faster, and will be able to handle more complicated terrains.

Also known as a six-bar tensegrity structure, these spherical-shaped robots roll along surfaces by shifting their center of gravity.

“They have either compressive elements that are rods, or they have elastic elements, which are kind of like rubber bands,” Agogino says. “And, they shift their shape by pulling on the elastic elements and making them longer or shorter allowing them to take on a range of different shapes and thus, change of gravity. One of the shape-shifting shapes that we’re interested in is for them to be flat. So that in storage, in a rover, or in a spacecraft, they can be flat and then they can spring open and then be launched.”

Agogino says their target mission is either the moon or Titan, which one of Saturn’s moons. In addition to space exploration, researchers are also finding ways to use these robots on earth.

“We’re also exploring applications where in fact the aircraft itself might be a tensegrity structure that can fly through the air, drop on the ground, and actually conduct some kind of search and rescue, or, delivery of emergency supplies,” Agogino explains.

Although the first robot prototype was built with Legos, the latest version has been upgraded with aluminum rods and 3-D printed parts.


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