NASA tests foldable, robotic scout for Mars

Team of small robots could act as autonomous swarm, backing up the next Mars rover

mars puffer robot
The Puffer robot/NASA/JPL

The next NASA rover to head to another planet might take a little robotic scout along with it.

This robot can fold up its wheels and tuck itself away or unfold and pop up like a piece of origami.

That’s what NASA is saying about its new "PUFFER" robot, or Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot, which is about the size of a human hand.

The robot is expected to change the way robots explore Mars. These devices can drop into crevices and craters, climb steep slopes and travel 2,050 feet on one battery charge.

"Having something that's as portable as a compass or a rock hammer means you can do science on the fly," said Carolyn Parcheta, a NASA Jet Propulsion Lab scientist, in a statement. Parcheta has used robots to explore volcanoes and has helped NASA develop the robot’s science instruments.

Puffers could be a game changer for the SUV-sized robotic rovers that are being sent to explore Mars. The bots could extend the use of the bigger machines by trekking ahead of the rover, looking for dangerous terrain, and investigating one area while the rover explores another.

"They can do parallel science with a rover, so you can increase the amount you're doing in a day," said Jaakko Karras, the Puffer's project manager, in a statement. "We can see these being used in hard-to-reach locations -- squeezing under ledges, for example."

The Puffer robot, which was developed at the JPL, was inspired by origami, according to the space agency.

With a lightweight design, the robot has two treaded wheels, which it can fold over its body so it can crawl into tight spaces or lie fairly flat.

The unique wheel design gives the Puffer what NASA is calling a "skittering walk" that keeps the bot inching forward, one wheel at a time, without slipping.

The bot’s circuit board acts as its electronics, as well as its body, enabling it to be more compact.

"There are no mounting fasteners or other parts to deal with,” said Christine Fuller, a JPL mechanical engineer, in a statement. “Everything is integrated to begin with."

The Puffer has a "tail" for added stability and solar panels on its belly so it can flip over and recharge in the sun.

NASA said the robot has been tested in Rainbow Basin, Calif., where it moved over sedimentary rock slopes and under overhangs. The terrain is similar to what the robot might have to cross on Mars, where scientists believe organic molecules might be found sheltering from dangerous radiation under overhangs.

The robot also has been tested in the snow, as well as on Mount Erebus, an active volcano in Antarctica, NASA said.

The next step for the Puffer will be for NASA scientists to equip it with scientific equipment, such as the tools it would need to test water samples for organic material, or a spectrometer to study the chemical makeup of its environment.

NASA said that engineers also are looking at making the Puffer a smart robot by adding autonomous software to it. A rover could carry several of the smart Puffers, which could be released to act like a coordinated swarm.

"If Curiosity had a stack of Puffers on board, each of them could go to separate spots, and the rover would just go to the most interesting one," said Kalind Carpenter, a JPL robotics engineer, in a statement.

NASA has begun building the next robotic rover, which it plans send to Mars in three years.

NASA plans to send the new rover to Mars in the summer of 2020. It is expected to arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021, where it would be used to investigate Mars for signs of past life. If the Puffer robot is ready, it would be included in the trip.

Dubbed the Mars 2020 rover, it is expected to be able to drill into rocks, collect samples and ready them for a return trip to Earth, which would be part of a future Mars mission.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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