NASA's A-PUFFER, CADRE Projects Could Put a Swarm of Autonomous NVIDIA Jetson Nanos on the Moon

Pop-up wheeled robots working together aim to answer key questions about lava tubes on the moon.

An upcoming rover mission at NASA is making use of a swarm of autonomous compact wheeled robots — and a look at the prototypes reveals the presence of NVIDIA's popular Jetson Nano computer-on-module at their heart.

While NASA's previous rover missions tended to focus on one or two large-scale rovers, it has been working on a range of smaller and lower-cost alternatives. Last year it completed work on the Autonomous Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (A-PUFFER), a wheeled robot that could fold itself flat for storage or to access smaller spaces — inspired by the puffer fish and its ability to inflate and deflate on demand.

A-PUFFER and CADRE could put NVIDIA's Jetson Nano on the moon, as part of a planned demonstration mission. (📹: NASA)

The initial, simple A-PUFFER prototype was followed by a more robust variant with what NASA describes as "an upgraded onboard computer" purchased "off-the-shelf" — and which images reveal to be an NVIDIA Jetson Nano, launched three years ago and updated a year later with stereo camera support before the addition of a lower-cost 2GB version last year.

Now NASA is working on a follow-on project, Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Exploration (CADRE), in which a swarm of rovers could work collaboratively, including sacrificing one for the good of all.

"The idea there is that [if] we have two or three rovers that we could send, one of them could potentially go down into a lava tube," NASA's Alex Schepelmann explains in an interview with MIT Technology Review on the topic. "And we would basically know that that rover would have a hard time getting back out."

Once wedged in the tube, Schepelmann explains, the rover could act as a communications relay for the others — as well as sending back valuable data from within the lava tube itself, courtesy of a stereo imaging camera and other sensor packages.

A mission to demonstrate CADRE's capabilities out of the lab is expected to take place in the next few years, where a lander will seed the robots onto the surface of the moon — though NASA has not yet committed to a firm timescale.

More information on the project is available on MIT Technology Review, and on the NASA pages for A-PUFFER and CADRE.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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