NASA is working on a unique concept wherein we may soon witness robots which can switch from their usual shape, much like the science fiction movie series Transformers. According to NASA, these small robots can be able to roll, fly, float, and swim for exploring the moons of Saturn.
The concept has been named as the Shapeshifter, which is a collection of small robots which can form a single big robot or they might even work independently as per the given situation. A designated team is testing a 3D-printed prototype of this concept at the US space agency’s NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a NASA statement said.
The Shapeshifter concept can include a series of up to 12 robots which would be able to transform into a swimming probe or a team of cave exploring robots. they will be able to reach places where other robots have not reached yet. There is a special name that which has been coined for these mini robots and that’s “cobots,”. Each of these cobots is going to be equipped with a small propeller.
According to the researchers, these cobots can come together automatically to form a rolling sphere, they can fly independently or they can even go for cave explorations by forming a daisy chain to maintain contact with the surface. Presently, the prototype looks like a drone which has been cased into an elongated hamster wheel. It can split into half to form a couple of flying drones.
The prototype is a part of NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) research program which funds to visionary concepts which may seem impossible in the present day but may become scientific discoveries in the future.
JPL Principal Investigator Ali Agha visualises the Shapeshifter concept as a mission to Titan, one of the prominent moons of Saturn, that is known for having liquid methane on the surface. The Shapeshifter concept might actually explore the moon and look for possible ice volcanoes or caves that are hidden in the dense atmosphere of Titan.
“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,” Agha explained in the statement. “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.”
Agha visualises a lander like that of European Space Agency’s Huygens Probe, which landed on Titan after getting deployed through a parachute by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. He says that the lander would serve as a source of energy for the cobots and will carry the scientific instruments for performing in-depth sample analysis.
However, he feels that the lander would need to be portable, similar to the size of Huygens Probe. Agha’s calculated that 10 cobots could easily lift the lander of Huygens Probe size which was 9 feet (3 metres) 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,” Jason Hofgartner, JPL lead scientist for Shapeshifter said in the statement. “Shapeshifter’s remarkable versatility enables access to all of these scientifically compelling places.”
The Shapeshifter concept will get submitted to NIAC’s Phase II selection process in 2020. If selected, it could take many more years until the Shapeshifter gets to visit moons like the Titan.
NASA’s next mission to Titan is going to be Dragonfly, which is the first rotorcraft lander by the space agency. It is scheduled to be launched in 2026.
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