NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is developing shapeshifting robots that can transform into flying drones, rolling spheres, and submersibles to explore distant worlds, including Saturn’s moons. Engineers are currently testing a 3D-printed prototype of the robot, which the engineer’s state “looks like a drone encased in a hamster wheel that rolls across the yard and then splits in half.” Once in split, the two pieces rise on small propellers, effectively becoming drones ready for exploration.
The smaller robots are known as ‘cobots,’ which are outfitted with a few propellers that are also used as actuators, and merge to form different mobility modes- including rolling, flying, and swimming, along with a few others. Beyond mobility, the Shapeshifter can carry out various functions and applications, including transporting large objects, travel long distances under minimal power, and even form communication networks that could relay data from underground cave systems to surface areas.
The Shapeshifter robotic platform is part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) research program, which provides a series of funding as a concept to reality path for aspiring exploration projects. While the Shapeshifter robot is still under development, the engineering team envisions a series of up to a dozen robots that could form into a swimming probe or a series of cave explorers.
One of the first stops for the Shapeshifter platform would be Saturn’s moon Titan, which has methane lakes, oceans, and rivers, which NASA says, could harbor life. According to JPL Principal Investigator Ali Agha, “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. 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."