NASA’s Shapeshifter, a developing concept for transformational vehicles that can be used to explore far-away worlds, enables mini-robots to roll, fly, float, swim and finally, morph into a single machine. Engineers are testing out their concept with a 3D printed prototype in a robotics yard located at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.


The prototype for Shapeshifter is being tested in the robotics yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)


The machine looks like a drone placed in a hamster wheel that rolls around the robotics yard, eventually separating into two half-wheels. When it separates, the halves use propellers to ascend into the air, turning into aerial drones for exploration. This is just the start of what the 3D-printed parts can achieve. The engineers have also envisioned a series of 12 robots working together as a swimming probe or as cave explorers.


Researchers from Stanford and Cornell universities teamed up with JPL’s Principal Investigator Ali Agha to create a concept of “cobots,” which is a self-assembling robot made of numerous smaller robots. Each cobot comes equipped with a small propeller and can move independently or together to carry out specified missions like flying along cliff sides. The cobots are also capable of spelunking, forming a daisy chain to maintain contact with the surface, flying, or morphing into a sphere-like shape to roll along flat terrain and conserve energy. Shapeshifter is currently semi-autonomous, but in the future cobots will be designed to auto-assemble without taking commands from Earth.


An illustration of the robots on Titan carrying out assigned missions. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marilynn Flynn)


NASA’s Shapeshifter is one of several projects being funded by NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which transforms science fiction ideas into reality that could be useful in future space exploration missions. Ali Agha of JPL envisions using Shapeshifter to explore Saturn’s moon Titan, the only other rocky world in the solar system that contains methane liquid in lakes, rivers and seas on its surface.


To date, the European Huygens probe is the only spacecraft to have landed on Titan’s surface, which was onboard the Cassini orbital mission and operated for a short time in 2005, along with Cassini’s observations from 2004 to 2017. Both the probe and Cassini gave us a glimpse of how similar Titan actually is to Earth, but with a few differences. Under a thick orange atmosphere, it revealed flowing rivers and lakes, and even rainfall on the rocky world’s surface that all consist of methane and ethane liquid. Titan’s hazy atmosphere could also hide caverns or icy volcanoes that, instead of magma, actually burst out ammonia or water.


"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."


Agha envisions having a lander similar to the European Space Agency’s Huygens Probe land on Titan, acting as a “mothercraft” that supplies energy for the cobots. It would also carry additional scientific instruments to perform in-depth sample analysis. Agha calculates that 10 cobots could easily lift and carry a Huygens-sized (9 feet, or 3 meters, wide) portable “mothercraft” to different areas. The flight would be a lot easier since Titan’s gravity is low, and the atmosphere is denser than Earth’s.


"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 "Shapeshifter's remarkable versatility enables access to all of these scientifically compelling places."


The Shapeshifter team plans on handing in their concept to NIAC’s Phase II selection process in 2020 for additional funding. It would still take many more years for Shapeshifter to visit Titan. While the team prepares for their proposal, a rotorcraft lander named Dragonfly is in the works and is set to launch in 2026, with its mission being focused towards finding life on Titan.



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