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NASA Developing Transforming Robots for Planetary Exploration

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More “modular,” less “robots in disguise.”

After focusing so much on the Moon and Mars for so many years, NASA is ready to branch out a bit through our Solar System. One particular target of interest is Titan, one of Saturn’s major moons. The problem here is that a traditional unmanned rover like what we’ve been employing wouldn’t really work on Titan’s sandy, soupy terrain, it’d go a few feet before getting stuck in the mud. The solution? A modular robot that can adapt to any kind of terrain.

NASA is working on a new kind of rover robot tentatively named “Shapeshifter.” It’s an apt title, as the Shapeshifter could, at least in theory, reconfigure itself on the fly to roll along the ground, swim through liquid, hover through caves, and probably a few other things I’m not thinking of. It wouldn’t just be one of these guys on the surface, either; the Shapeshifters are designed to work in small teams and assemble themselves together into larger, more complicated machines for different kinds of experiments. A group of hovering Shapeshifters could also airlift other pieces of equipment from a home base or mothership, which would be easier on Titan since the gravity’s lower.

The Shapeshifters are a part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, a sort of mad science think tank NASA has to prototype wacky ideas that may end up being useful down the line. It’d probably take a few decades before we can send functional Shapeshifters to Titan, which has only ever had one probe on it, and only for a year. Still, the team is hard at work developing their current prototype, and are hoping to secure some more funding during the next phase of NIAC in 2020.