The Tribot may look a little like something you'd find barring traffic at a construction site, but actually it's a sophisticated robot designed to gather data for climate and environmental research from difficult-to-reach places.
Designed by Jonathan Herrle, Josef Niedermeier and Ralf Kittmann, Tribot disposes with the wheels and treads found on conventional robots and instead uses a very weird locomotion tech. Basically it's an adaptive tetrahedron, with actuators in each "leg" capable of adjusting the overall geometry.
To move in a particular direction it changes shape until its new center of gravity tips it over—a way of moving that's particularly effective in the mountainous and glaciated locations it's intended for. At its core sits its webcam-equipped control unit that will also house sensors. Clever stuff, which is probably why it's up for a 2009 iF design award.
All-terrain robotics isn't new. Late last year a robot designed by a British PhD student hit the news. Dubbed the Jollbot, it too uses an alternative drive mechanism: It's a collection of springy metal bars in a spherical shape that also has adaptive geometry. In this case it's powerful enough to let the robot leap over potential obstacles—exactly the sort of all-terrain roving ability well suited to robotic exploration of other planets.
And then there's the continued research into swarm robotics. These are machines with multiple smaller component robots that combine Transformers-like into a larger machine with the ability to traverse terrain that an individual bot couldn't: exactly like this technology demonstrator built by University of Pennsylvania scientists.
And, of course, groups like NASA are seriously into this: the administration's ATHLETE program is designed to investigate all-terrain roving robots that could one day explore planetary surfaces either manned or unmanned.
Though it's got pretty conventional electric motor-driver wheels, it too adapts its geometry to tackle difficult terrain: looks like adaptive structures is one certain future direction for robotics.