The Rovers noodling around in the red dust of Mars have done amazing work on old-fashioned wheels. NASA, however, has concluded that future autonomous rovers need to be capable of performing what amount to gymnastics in order to navigate unpredictable terrain. They unveiled a very cool step in that direction Thursday with The Hedgehog.
The Hedgehog has been specifically designed for use in exploring small bodies like asteroids. NASA's media release quoted Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Hedgehog team head Issa Nesnas, who said this is "a different kind of robot that would hop and tumble on the surface instead of rolling on wheels. It is shaped like a cube and can operate no matter which side it lands on."
JPL's release states that the concept behind the Hedgehog "is a cube with spikes that moves by spinning and braking internal flywheels."
The spikes do dual duty with the Hedgehog—protect its body and then function as feet as the cube-like machine winds its way around the craggy surfaces of asteroids or comets.
The Hedgehog has been tested in near-zero gravity flights on NASA's iconic "Vomit Comet" and over a wide variety of rocky, icy, otherwise unstable surfaces. It also does what the JPL calls "a 'tornado' maneuver." This is when the spunky robot "aggressively spins to launch itself from the surface." The Hedgehog could pull this trick "to escape from a sandy sinkhole" or surprise attack from alien hobos, for all we know.
We kind of think we know where this sort of robot design is headed. The adorable BB8 from the upcoming continuation of the Star Wars saga is starting to look like a natural product of Hedgehog evolution.
Watch NASA's full introduction video below.
Photos by Video still