Imagine you’re on the edge of the Sahara Desert, trying to research the problem of desertification—the spread of new deserts onto farmland and into communities. You need data, but you’re facing thousands of miles of sand and rocks and temperatures that regularly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Here’s one solution for gathering information: A tumbleweed-shaped robot that can travel for years using only wind power.
The brainchild of Israeli industrial designer Shlomi Mir, the Tumbleweed pops up into a ball filled with small sails that easily catch a breeze. “It can change direction with the wind, like a hot air balloon,” Mir says. When the robot wants to stop to gather data, it flattens itself into a pancake so it can’t be blown away.
Initially, Mir intended to use the Tumbleweed to plant seeds in barren land. “It was kind of a naïve theory—I had learned about root systems that are good at preventing erosion,” he explains. “But I started talking to desertification researchers and learned that wasn’t actually the best solution. Grazing, agricultural use, climate change, and a whole host of other problems are really the main issues.”
Even though scientists know a little bit about what causes desertification, they don’t understand many of the details. Mir realized he could adapt his robot to gather much-needed data about the 12 million hectares of land that become desert every year.
“This platform is very good at getting around cheaply, over long distances,” he says. “A lot of researchers who are trying to find out fundamental questions about the phenomena of desertification don’t have the funding to get out there.”
In the current iteration of Tumbleweed, a tiny onboard computer and sensors can help map out land and measure temperature, rainfall, humidity, and even take soil samples.
Right now, Mir is working with a researcher who is trying to figure out what makes sand dunes form and spread. “No one actually understand why dunes form the way they do or move—taking over land or sometimes even homes,” Mir says.
The researcher will use a group of Tumbleweeds, working together, to create a 3-D map of the dunes and ultimately create a mathematical model to predict—and with luck, start to prevent—the spread of future dunes before an estimated 50 million people lose their homes or livelihoods to desertification over the next decade.