NASA has announced plans to design robots that can roll, fly, float, and swim to explore the moons of Saturn someday. The larger bots are made up of smaller mini-robots that combine. The larger robot is dubbed Shapeshifter.
NASA’s test Shapeshifter robot is said to look like a drone encased in an elongated hamster wheel. The wheel can roll across the yard, split in half, and then the halves can rise on small propellers. The ability to fly allows them to act as individual drones for aerial exploration. Construction for the bots used 3D printing.
The team imagines a series of up to 12 “cobot” robots that could transform into a swimming probe or a team of cave explorers. The shapeshifter robot is part of an early-stage research program called NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) that has several stages of funding for visionary concepts. The goal of that program is to turn projects that sound like science fiction into fact.
The idea is to possibly send a robot, like Shapeshifter, to explore Saturn’s moon Titan. Titan is the only other body in the solar system known to have liquid on its surface. The liquid isn’t water but methane. The surface of Titan is mapped and ready for a future mission; the Cassini mission performed the mapping.
Titan’s liquids are methane and ethane, which are found as gasses on Earth. The team thinks the surface of Titan might also have caves and icy volcanos that spew ammonia. The concept of Shapeshifter came as a collaboration between Stanford and Cornell University. The robot is semi-autonomous, and in a future design, it will be able to assemble from the smaller cobot robots into the larger robot without commands from Earth.