NASA reveals work on tiny folding robots for exploring extreme terrains

PASADENA, Calif. NASA and several partners are working on what the space agency calls an "origami-inspired" small robot that can fold itself to become as small as a smartphone but is rugged enough to handle harsh terrain on Mars and beyond.

The PUFFER robot -- the acronym stands for "Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robots" -- will be designed for small size, light weight, and extreme flexibility, making it an option for exploring some of the harshest landscapes in the solar system. NASA says that it envisions robots like PUFFER traversing lava tubes on Mars or icy “chaos terrains” on Europa, a frozen moon orbiting Jupiter. The agency says that recent tests on pseudo-Martian terrain have determined that PUFFER can survive falls from as high as three meters under simulated Martian gravity and scale rocky inclines at slopes of up to 45 degrees.

The PUFFER project is still in development as an 18-month-long collaborative project involving NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, University of California Berkeley, and optical and sensor technology company Distant Focus Corp. (Champaign, Illinois).

One of the highlights of the PUFFER design: The tiny robot's small size and low cost would allow a "parent" spacecraft -- such as a larger Mars rover or a Europa lander -- to carry a large number of notional PUFFERs, stacked away in a small enclosure. When the parent encounters terrain that it wants to explore but that is beyond its own scope, it would simply eject one or more low-cost PUFFERs and dispatch them into the features of interest. The ejected PUFFERs then would unfold themselves, explore the target environment, and return the data to the parent for relay back to scientists on Earth.

The next phase for the PUFFER project and partners is testing in the Mojave Desert during 2017, to simulate the harsh Martian atmosphere. For more information and to see videos of the PUFFER test in action, visit the NASA Game Changing Development page.

Photo courtesy NASA