Terrestrial roll

Developed by engineers at Swedish company Rotundus, a rolling robot is based on designs originally intended for planetary exploration.

While burglars breaking into some factories often have nothing more terrifying to contend with than a dozing security guard, felons of the future may find themselves up against a more formidable foe – a robot ball.

Developed by engineers at Swedish company Rotundus, the rolling robot is based on designs originally intended for planetary exploration. But last year Rotundus was spun out from the Angstrom Space Technology Centre at the University of Uppsala with the intention of developing terrestrial markets for the technology.

To get the robot to move, a pendulum mounted within the sphere is lifted in the direction of travel. This moves the centre of mass to a position in front of the contact point between the ball and the ground and the ball starts rolling.

The robot can then be steered by moving the pendulum from side to side. Sensors such as cameras, microphones, gas and smoke detectors and heat sensors can then be mounted on the central axis.

Rotundus chief executive Nils Hulth said that the operating principle is similar to ‘tumbleweed’ Mars rovers developed by both ESA and JPL but that this robot has been made more robust to cope with the rigours of a terrestrial environment.

Capable of rolling through mud, snow and water, the airtight, spherical droid can be used for reconnaissance in a variety ofdifferent settings.

One of the most attractive applications is in the security industry, where there’s a strong pressure to replace humans with technology in order to reduce costs.

Hulth said that while current prototypes are remote controlled, the key to making the robot ideal for security applications will be to give it some degree of autonomy. The team is now working on teaching it to avoid obstacles and to follow a preset route using GPS.

The company is also investigating other applications, and the durability of the robot also marks it out for use in more demanding environments, such as military inspection and reconnaissance. Another potentially lucrative area is the toy industry.

Hulth said that the company is now very close to identifying which of these applications it will pursue most vigorously, and hopes to be able to announce an industrial collaboration within the next six months. While he wouldn’t rule out the robot being used in space he said that this is unlikely to be its first application.

‘This is something it is very well suited for, but it’s likely to appear on terrestrial applications long before it gets up into space,’ he said.