NASA's rolling Shapeshifter robot concept splits into two drones
When NASA’s Cassini performed more than 100 flybys of Saturn’s moon Titan, scientists piecing together the data began forming a picture of a pretty treacherous environment, with liquid methane rain, cold rivers and icy volcanoes all potentially part of the mix. The agency’s scientists are already at work developing vehicles that will one day be used to explore such surrounds, with its newly revealed Shapeshifter robot another interesting example.
The Shapeshifter is a developmental concept at this early stage, and is designed to change its shape depending on the type of alien terrain it encounters. The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have 3D printed a prototype of the robot that is already capable of some impressive maneuvers.
NASA’s thinking with the Shapeshifter is that it will actually be made up of a number of smaller robots, which can self-assemble into a larger machine and disassemble again as the mission calls for it.
In the case of this prototype, these smaller, so-called "cobots" are fitted out with a propellor that essentially makes them small quadcopters, able to fly of their own accord. But the two smaller cobots can come together to become a rolling wheel-shaped machine that could one day tumble across the surface of Titan (or other places like it).
"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," says JPL Principal Investigator Ali 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."
The team imagines that as many as 12 smaller cobots could work together as a part of larger robotic explorers that investigate caves or underwater environments. These would travel to Titan or other distant worlds aboard a mothercraft lander, which would carry their energy source and instruments for sample analysis.
All of this is a long, long way off. The Shapeshifter concept will be submitted for consideration for further development under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) research program in 2020. But the next spacecraft to visit Titan will be NASA’s Dragonfly drone, which will fly through the atmosphere on the hunt for organic molecules that could hint at signs of life. Dragonfly is scheduled for launch in 2026 and to arrive at Titan in 2034.
You can see the Shapeshifter do its thing in the video below.