We’ve sent men to the Moon. And we are trying to get some people to Mars. But what about Saturn? That might be pretty tough. It’s really far away, and basically a massive ball made mostly of hydrogen and helium. Even if by some technological jump we are able to get astronauts to Saturn, humans would have a hard time actually looking around. NASA is looking into a solution and it comes in the form of shape-shifting robots.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working on a prototype of a transforming robot called Shapeshifter. It’s made up of smaller robots or “cobots” like flying drones, rolling spheres, and ones that can go underwater. The cobots would be able to move independently of each other or work in a group depending on what terrain they encounter.
Shapeshifting Robot Inspired by Science Fiction
Shapeshifter is part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) research program. NIAC investigates ideas that are inspired by sci-fi and tries to determine if they can eventually become a reality.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s principal investigator Ali Agha feels Shapeshifter could help explore Saturn’s moon Titan, which is the only world in our solar system known to have liquid in the form of methane lakes, rivers and seas on its surface.
Mothercraft Would Serve as Base
Agha envisions a lander or “mothercraft” which would serve as a base and energy source for the shapeshifting robots. This “mothercraft” would be portable and able to move around the planet. It would also house equipment to provide analysis of anything the robots collect in their travels. As of now, the Shapeshifter prototype is semi-autonomous, but it will eventually need the cobots to be able to auto-assemble without needing commands from Earth.
Additional Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech