NASA’s Origami-Inspired Robot Explores Small Spaces

NASA (Via photographer Dylan Taylor)
Batman and Robin. Buffy and Willow. The Lone Ranger and Tonto. NASA space rovers and PUFFER?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration this week introduced a new scouting sidekick: the Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (PUFFER).

In development at California’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the mini machines were inspired by origami—the art of paper folding. As you would flatten a piece of parchment into shapes, the PUFFER can compress its wheels to crawl into tight spaces.

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

Tested in rugged terrains like the Mojave Desert and Antarctica, the rolling robots can navigate slopes and overhangs, and drop into pits or craters. Several of the microbots may even be flattened and stacked atop one another during travel, then separate and explore individually.

PUFFER’s creators hope to see the wee critters skittering across the sands of Mars one day; there are also various applications for them on Earth.

“Having something that’s as portable as a compass or a rock hammer means you can do science on the fly,” JPL scientist Carolyn Parcheta, who uses robots to explore volcanoes, said.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

From paper prototype to full-fledged finder, the PUFFER features a printed circuit board and Bluetooth capability—just like your smartphone—two flexible wheels and a tail for stabilization. Solar panels on its belly allow the device to flip over and recharge in the sun.

The next step, according to NASA, is “making PUFFER a scientist,” with the ability to sample water for organic material or study the chemical makeup of its environment. Autonomous functionality wouldn’t be too bad, either.

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

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