AI News, NASA Tests Origami-Inspired Robot That May One Day Explore Mars

NASA Tests Origami-Inspired Robot That May One Day Explore Mars

It costs a stupendous amount of money to send something from the surface of Earth to the surface of Mars, and there are severe limits on the volume and mass that you can send at any one time.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., engineers have long been trying to cram as much robot as possible into the absolute minimum amount of space, and a team of roboticists there recently showed us their latest creation: PUFFER, the Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot.

Maybe this is crawling along dunes of deep sand, taking a trip down the steep sides of a crater, or exploring little nooks and crannies where a larger rover simply can’t fit.

Having access to a small swarm of PUFFERs means that you could set up robots to cooperate with each other, perhaps even to the extent of robots providing physical assistance to one another to do more comprehensive science.

PUFFER: JPL's Pop-Up Exploring Robot

It costs a stupendous amount of money to send something from the surface of Earth to the surface of Mars, and there are severe limits on the volume and mass that you can send at any one time.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., engineers have long been trying to cram as much robot as possible into the absolute minimum amount of space, and a team of roboticists there recently showed us their latest creation: PUFFER, the Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot.

Error loading player: No playable sources found The overall idea with PUFFER is that you’d pack a bunch of them along with the next Mars rover, and send them out whenever you want to go somewhere that it would be either risky or impossible for the larger rover to go.

Maybe this is crawling along dunes of deep sand, taking a trip down the steep sides of a crater, or exploring little nooks and crannies where a larger rover simply can’t fit.

With PUFFER, JPL is taking the next step, saying, “Okay, how can we make these technologies actually do something useful in a real world environment, even if that real world is some world other than Earth?” Image: NASA JPL PUFFER is designed to pack down nearly flat for transport, and then re-expand on site to investigate all the places a bigger rover can’t quite reach.

In particular, David has shown the ability to skitter beneath low overhead clearances in the sprawled stance, and we extend that to accessing areas beneath overhung rocks on Mars.

On PUFFER, we also pass copper traces over the flexure hinges in order to connect different parts of the chassis electrically, and design precautions had to be taken to ensure that these traces survived the number of fold-unfold cycles that we expect over a PUFFER’s lifetime.

One design concept that we came up with for PUFFER was to laminate a really robust Nomex textile layer onto the rigid-flex PCB, and then use that as the flexure material, instead of the traditional polyimide material that’s typically used to link the rigid PCB sections.

We still pass our copper traces over polyimide film sections, but since these no longer need to provide the mechanical hinge function, they can be quite long for a gentler bend radius and long copper lifetime.

Reasons to scale up might include wanting to accommodate larger instruments (or more instruments per platform), more batteries and solar panel area for greater power budget, or possibly for larger wheels and ground clearance for mobility in rougher terrain.

The PUFFERs would initially be guided to the cave through the parent rover’s cameras, but once they enter the cave, and the parent’s vision becomes inadequate, they would relay images from their own cameras back to the parent for processing.

Most of the heavy autonomy computation would likely take place on the larger, more capable parent rover computer, with the parent sending commands down the PUFFER relay chain.

Having expandable origami wheels could provide the best of both worlds: the wheels could expand to traverse larger obstacles more directly, and collapse to access the confined spaces.

Recently, the team added microspine features (inspired by work done with spines for various climbing robots) to PUFFER’s wheels, and saw a remarkable improvement in incline performance on its Mars analog test terrain when compared to results achieved with more universal wheel designs.

NASA’s Shapeshifting Origami Robot Squeezes Where Others Can’t

AUTHOR: MARGARET RHODES MARGARET RHODES DESIGN 03.29.17 02:48 PM NASA’S SHAPESHIFTING ORIGAMI ROBOT SQUEEZES WHERE OTHERS CAN’T NASA/JPL-CALTECH NASA MAY HAVE equipped its Mars Curiosity rover with an impressive array of scientific instruments, but the robot attaché's size and $2.5-billion price tag give its operators ample reason to steer clear of terrain that could jeopardize its mission.

Which is a shame, because much of Mars' craggy, cave-ridden, boulder-strewn landscape is so treacherous (planetary geologists literally call it chaos terrain), that big, expensive robots like Curiosity can't risk accessing it.

“It’s very adverse terrain, stuff you wouldn’t want to send your only multi-billion dollar rover into.” Two years ago, that fact prompted Karras to start work on Puffer.

The small robot stands just seven centimeters tall, weighs 5.3 ounces (a little less than a cue ball), and would cost millions—not billions—to build.

Its two wheels bookend a circuit board chassis, the origami-inspired construction of which allows the wheels to collapse inward, bringing the entire Puffer into a flat configuration reminiscent of a horseshoe crab.

Karras envisions sending a rover and a small fleet of 10 or so Puffers on parent-child missions, where Puffers crawl into crevices and bring scoops of dirt back to the mothership.

Why do we send robots to space?

The Curiosity rover takes a self-portrait on a Martian sand dune.

But even if a robotic mission fails, the humans involved with the mission stay safe.

Some can withstand harsh conditions, like extreme temperatures or high levels of radiation.

NASA has been investigating Mars with rovers since the Pathfinder mission landed in 1997 and deployed a small rover called Sojourner.

This robot can float in the water and roll its wheels along the underside of an icy surface, all while taking pictures and collecting data.

Scientists hope to someday use a robot like this to search for signs of life on icy bodies elsewhere in the solar system.

It could even get itself out of a deep crater using a tornado-like maneuver that launches the robot into the air.

For example, we might like a humanoid robot to help prepare a future human settlement on Mars.

Image credit: NASA This electric robot relies on cameras, sensors, lots of motors, and two computers.

Whether walking, tumbling, flying or rolling, robots have a major role to play in space exploration!

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