Incredible robot could one day play a vital part in NASA Mars missions

NASA has been inspired by the Japanese art of origami paper folding when creating its PUFFER robot, which can fold itself to squeeze into small spaces.

The robot may one day accompany a rover on Mars missions, assisting by tucking in its wheels, making itself flat and maneuvering into places the bigger rover cannot.

In fact, the creation can fold itself so efficiently, that one can be stacked on top of another like (very expensive) playing cards. Once needed, they can spring back into shape and get moving.

The Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (PUFFER) is currently in development at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

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PUFFER ‘origami’ robot. Source: NASA“They can do parallel science with a rover, so you can increase the amount you’re doing in a day,” said Jaakko Karras, PUFFER’s project manager at JPL. “We can see these being used in hard-to-reach locations — squeezing under ledges, for example.”

Karras, who came up with the idea for PUFFER’s unique body style, began on the path to such a concept while he was a grad student at UC Berkeley’s Biomimetic Millisystem Lab.

His focus was on creating robotics inspired by natural forms, such as animals and insect movement.

Later, at NASA, the team working on PUFFER decided to use a printed circuit border, like those found in smart phones, in a similar way to how paper is used in origami.

“The circuit board includes both the electronics and the body, which allows it to be a lot more compact,” said Christine Fuller, a JPL mechanical engineer who worked on PUFFER’s structure. “There are no mounting fasteners or other parts to deal with. Everything is integrated to begin with.”

The wheels, meanwhile, we made using a 3D printer by JPL’s Kalind Carpenter, an expert in robotic mobility.

As if the little robot isn’t already sounding like it has enough of a cute, but gutsy, personality to be in a future Star Wars movie, NASA also explained that it is capable of flipping itself puppy-style onto its back to get some sun onto its belly. This allows it to recharge using solar energy.

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Heading into space on a NASA Mars mission?

PUFFER’s current spec already incorporates multiple Mars-compatible materials into its design, including heritage technology from the Viking, Pathfinder and Phoenix missions.

Its body is wrapped in Nomex, which NASA describes as “a strong textile used in the air bags that cushioned the Spirit and Opportunity rovers when they touched down on Mars.”

Firefighters use Nomex to repel heat, which says a lot about the kind of extremely high temperatures PUFFER could withstand.

“Small robotic explorers like PUFFER could change the way we do science on Mars,” Karras said. “Like Sojourner before it, we think it’s an exciting advance in robotic design.”

Several changes are likely over the course of development. A major one would be to make PUFFER smarter. Instead of being controlled remotely by Bluetooth as it is currently, the hope would be to make it autonomous.

NASA presents an image of multiple robots scuttling across the surface of Mars, working as a team to cover as much ground as possible.

“If Curiosity had a stack of PUFFERs on board, each of them could go to separate spots, and the rover would just go to the most interesting one,” Carpenter said.

Putting PUFFER robot through its paces

The ‘origami robot’ is currently being put to the test long before it reaches the hostile terrain of Mars. It has faced testing in conditions ranging from the Mojave Desert in California to the snow covered hills of Antarctica, all within the past 12 months.

Steep slopes of 45-degree angles, sand dunes and even drops into pits are not beyond the robot, meaning it is capable of things a bigger, more commonly used rover may find too risky.

Large wheels, designed by Carpenter, and a flat fishtail help PUFFER to traverse terrain with winter conditions.

Overhangs are also a feature that PUFFER may need to get familiar with. Overhangs on Mars could be sheltering organic molecules from harmful radiation, according to researchers.

“Darkly colored Martian slopes, which are of interest to scientists, are another potential target,” NASA says.

On a single battery charge PUFFER can travel around 2,050 feet (625 meters), depending on what instruments are on board at the time.

And the number of instruments could soon increase, as the team tries to make PUFFER into more of an independent scientist. NASA would like it to sample water for organic material, and for the robot to carry a a spectrometer so that it can assess an environment’s chemical makeup.

[More: NASA’s Laser Powered Engine Could get us to Mars in 3 Days]

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