Tumbleweed rovers, now undergoing development, are lightweight, inflatable, approximately spherical exploratory robotic vehicles designed to roll across terrain, using only wind for propulsion. Tumbleweed rovers share many features with "beach-ball" rovers, which were discussed in several prior NASA Tech Briefs articles. Conceived for use in exploring remote planets, tumbleweed rovers could also be used for exploring relatively inaccessible terrain on Earth.
A fully developed tumbleweed rover would consist of an instrumentation package suspended in an inflated two-layer (nylon/polypropylene) ball. The total mass of the rover would be of the order of 10 kg, the diameter of the ball when inflated would be 2 meters, and the minimum wind speed needed for propulsion would be about 5 m/s. The instrumentation package would contain a battery power supply, sensors, a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, and a radio transmitter that would send the sensor readings and the GPS position and time readings to a monitoring station via a satellite communication system. Depending on the specific exploratory mission, the sensors could include a thermometer, a barometer, a magnetometer (for studying the terrestrial magnetic field and/or detecting buried meteorites), a subsurface radar system (for measuring ice thickness and/or detecting buried meteorites), and/or one or two diametrally opposed cameras that would take the part of sending two side-looking images out.
In the planned Antarctic field test, a prototype tumbleweed rover was released at a location near the South Pole. Using the global Iridium satellite network to send information about its position, the rover transmitted temperature, pressure, humidity, and light intensity data to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The rover reached speeds of 30 km per hour over the Antarctic ice cap, and traveled at an average speed of about 6 km per hour. The test was designed to confirm the rover's long-term durability in an extremely cold environment, with the goal being eventual use of the device to explore the Martian polar caps and other planets in the solar system. On future Antarctic exploratory missions, tumbleweed rovers might be used to acquire sensor data for studies of global warming, ozone depletion, and impacts of meteorites.
This work was done by Alberto Behar, Jack Jones, Frank Carsey, and Jaret Matthews of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free online at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Physical Sciences category.