NASA
Robots & Machines

The Next Generation of Explorers Might be Tiny, Folding Robots

They may be small, but they are powerful.

We have made significant strides in exploring the universe for potential exoplanets harboring life, while we also made several efforts in establishing first contact with an intelligent species. But when it comes to exploring our own solar system, we might need more than just large telescopes and fancy radios. Cue NASA’s Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (PUFFER), a lightweight bot capable of adapting its shape to fit through tight spots and climbing steep slopes.

A Robotic Census Of Mars [Infographic]
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The origami-inspired miniature explorers have been in development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California for almost a year and a half. The PUFFER has been tested in several terrains, from the Mojave Desert to Antarctica, in severe conditions that they wouldn’t send normal rovers to in the first place. This is partly due to the fact that the PUFFER has a printed circuit board, enabling the placement of more electronics than normal in a space as compact at the PUFFER. The wheels on the little bot were 3D printed and gained treads to enable climbing at steeper slopes. The PUFFER also has a high-resolution micro-imager sensitive enough to see objects smaller than a fraction of the diameter of a single human hair, enabling it to “skitter walk,” which keeps the bot inching forward a wheel at a time in difficult terrain. These mini-rovers are hardcore.

Little Rover, Big Universe

The mini-rovers are designed to scale up 45-degree slopes, drop into craters and pits, and investigate overhangs. For this reason, NASA intends to send the PUFFERs with larger rover companions. The rovers can be flattened like cards and stacked on top one of another for optimized storage and mobility.

Therefore, data collection can be a multifaceted effort, with the PUFFERs working side-by-side with the larger companion in doing science. The PUFFER can travel 625 meters (2,050 feet) on a single charge and is outfitted for winter terrains, making data collection in all types of areas easier.

But we’re not done yet. The PUFFER is still in need of upgrades to sample organic material and study the chemical make-up of its environment. The scientists also feel that the PUFFER needs to be larger before it is sent off into space. PUFFER project manager Jaakko Karras said: “”Small robotic explorers like PUFFER could change the way we do science on Mars. Like Sojourner before it, we think it’s an exciting advance in robotic design.”

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