From the Big Lebowski to just about every Western ever made, the tumbleweed rolling across across a barren landscape has been an iconic cinematic trope for conveying desolation. However, an Israeli-based industrial designer has created a robot inspired by the tumbleweed to generate a set of data that’s quite fertile.

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Shlomi Mir’s Tumbleweed robot is an autonomous system designed to help scientists study the causes and effects of desertification, a massive problem across the globe where fertile land transforms into desert, usually due to drought, deforestation and unsuitable agriculture.

“We don’t know much about how deserts spread and how dunes move,” Mir told Wired UK. “We need more information in order to develop algorithms to predict where the next problems will be — and how it’s possible to fix them.”

Therefore, Mir built his Tumbleweed prototype. Robust sails fastened to its spherical steel frame allow the robot to catch a gust of wind and roll. This kinetic motion powers the the robot’s onboard computer, motor and sensors. Tension in the robot’s frame allows it to change shape and take advantage of optimal conditions. For example, Tumbleweed will flatten out until there is enough wind to propel it. As geolocation data is gathered, it can be transmitted back to researchers.

“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,” Mir told Wired.

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Mir said he’s been working to make the devices smaller and more agile. Potentially, he envisions swarms of Tumbleweeds being used to record data on sand dune migrations. “Star Wars” fans might urge Mir to hurry, as a giant sand dune is threatening to swallow Darth Vader’s childhood home.


Credit: Shlomi Mir