Robots are the intrepid explorers of our solar system, boldly venturing where humans can’t to capture images and scientific data about other planets and moons. Because we’re still learning about these other bodies, robotic explorers may need to be more adaptable to strange and inhospitable environments.
Enter the Shapeshifter, a Transformer-esque collection of mini robots that can form one machine or act independently. A team is currently testing the concept using a 3D-printed prototype at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, according to NASA.
The concept could include 12 robots that can fly or swim, exploring caves and oceans and going where other robots haven’t been able to explore. They’re called cobots, each equipped with a propeller. The researchers envision cobots that could come together automatically, without anyone from Earth sending commands, to form into a rolling sphere, fly independently or even create a daisy chain while exploring a cave.
The current prototype looks more like a semi-autonomous hamster wheel with a drone at the center. It can split and form two flying drones. It’s being tested as part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts research program. The program funds concepts that sound impossible but could help make scientific discoveries in the future.
Ali Agha, a principal investigator at JPL, could see Shapeshifter exploring Titan, Saturn’s moon with bodies of liquid methane on the surface. A drone lander called Dragonfly will set off for Titan in 2026 to follow up on observations made by NASA’s Cassini mission that previously explored Saturn and Titan. Cassini was able to perform only flybys of Titan.
Shapeshifter could actually explore the moon itself, including possible ice volcanoes or caves hiding beneath its dense atmosphere.
“We have very limited information about the composition of the surface. Rocky terrain, methane lakes, cryovolcanoes - we potentially have all of these, but we don’t know for certain,” said Agha. “So we thought about how to create a system that is versatile and capable of traversing different types of terrain but also compact enough to launch on a rocket.”
In concept, the cobots could rely on a spacecraft lander that can deliver them to Titan, provide energy and carry instruments for experiments and analysis. They would want the lander to be portable. If it were similar in size to the European Space Agency’s Huygens Probe, which traveled with Cassini and explored Titan, Agha estimates that 10 cobots could lift and carry the lander. The Huygens Probe was 9 feet wide.
“It is often the case that some of the hardest places to get to are the most scientifically interesting because maybe they’re the youngest, or they’re in an area that was not well characterized from orbit,” said Jason Hofgartner, JPL lead scientist for Shapeshifter. “Shapeshifter’s remarkable versatility enables access to all of these scientifically compelling places.”
The concept will be submitted in 2020 for the Phase II’s selection process, with the team’s hopes of one day exploring Titan.