Rolling robots uses a paper prototype of a robot that would be equally at home on Mars as moving through the streets of Exeter.


Machines never need to sleep right? No! In fact there are all sorts of machines on this planet, and some out in space who sleep to conserve energy - waking to perform a task before dropping back into deep slumber.

In 2004, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft floated through space in a state of sleep for three whole years only to wake up in january 2014 as it approached its final target - the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Back on earth in the agriculture industry, tiny distributed sleeping sensor networks are being developed to be scattered across farmland without connection to an electrical grid. These "nodes" or "smartdust" wake up intermittently to performing tasks such as gathering sensory information and communicating with other nodes in their network.

With an understanding that conserving power and scavenging energy from our environment hugely important challenges of the 21st century - we should consider how designing things to sleep may be as important as designing them to be awake?

In nature, movement is a fundamental and particularly energy intensive process but necessary to allow species to live and spread across our planet. From the simplest organisms, to plants, to the animal kingdom, evolution in form and material have allowed efficient motion in extraordinary and surprising ways.

Some of the most inspiring approaches by nature to conquer the planet have come from creatures of all sorts harnessing solar, thermal, wind, tidal and gravitational energy around them to move. Rather than using their own limited energy reserves they intelligently tap into their environment for free and abundant energy support.

A simple example might be tumbleweed that once mature and dry, disengages from its root and driven by the wind rolls great distances across desert terrain. or we might look at the jellyfish who utilise currents to migrate long distances, or sycamore seeds who's rotary wings allow them to drift far from the branches they fall from. Today in the world of robotics research, engineers are looking to nature for inspiration in building future machines far more efficient and more resilient to hostile environments than our traditional mobile robots. Using "passive" locomotion where energy is saved, turning instead to our environment for a helping hand, we find ways to use the physical, mechanical and material properties of things in new inspiring ways.

So as we reach for the stars, and land on distant planets looking for new places to explore and even live, what kinds of robots might we design which harness their environments energy to move around and explore strange new worlds. Will they fall asleep only to wake up on the other side of a planet, or having climbed up a hill or having swam an ocean? And back on earth what opportunities are there also for these technologies to operate in inhospitable or remote environments? What might these new technologies inspire that could occupy our homes and cities?

Project Information

License: NASA Open Source Agreement 1.3 (NASA-1.3)

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  • William Bondin
  • Becky Zhang
  • Ruairi Glynn
  • Felicity Liggins
  • Susanna Wakely
  • Elizabeth Barnes
  • Sam Appleyard
  • Seth Honnor