A Swarm of Tumbleweed-Like Robots Might Be the Ideal Desert Data Gatherers | Smart News | Smithsonian
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(Photo: Shlomi Mir)

A Swarm of Tumbleweed-Like Robots Might Be the Ideal Desert Data Gatherers

The hardy robots can traverse places that would be difficult or very expensive to send human data-gatherers

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Israeli scientists have come up with a practical solution for collecting information in the desert. Inspired by elements of the ecosystem, they have created robotic tumbleweeds. They think the robots could operate on their own for years, using the wind to traverse thousands of miles of desertscape and sendign information back to their creators the whole time. 

Wired reports:

Shlomi Mir designed his current Tumbleweed prototype to be a robust, adaptive robot. The steel structure relies on tension, which allows it to transform itself depending on its path. The arrangement of the robot’s sails allow it to catch wind and roll. Using a kinetic generator, the Tumbleweed’s motion powers an onboard computer, sensors and motor.

The Tumbleweed can’t control its exact path, but Mir designed it to respond to favorable wind conditions, meaning, the robot will flatten out like a pancake until a gust comes along to propel it in its intended direction. “There are applications where this system could go where people can’t go or can’t afford to go, or can’t go enough to collect the information that these researchers need,” he says.

Scientific understanding is built on data. The more data, the better scientists are able to understand a system. Sometimes, however, that data is hard to come by. Vast desert ecosystems, often located in remote places and characterized by inhospitable environments, for example, prove tricky. As climate change descends, however, understanding deserts and how they're spreading is becoming more and more important.

Rather than gather data for his own experiments, Mir, an industrial designer, hopes the data gathered by packs of tumbleweed tobots enable scientists to better understand and combat desertification. Researchers, for example, could create a 3D map of how wind and dunes interact and slowly expand a desert's boundaries, Wired writes. 

Mir is currently working on streamlining his prototype, but here you can see the first model in action:

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