When people think of space robots, they likely picture probes and rovers, both of which gather incredible amounts of information about planets, moons, comets, and asteroids. Soon, another robot will join their ranks: PUFFER.
PUFFER, which stands for Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot, was designed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The rather unlikely inspiration for the robot is origami, which might seem like an inapplicable or impractical concept for robots, but is actually ingenious. Rather than making it flimsy, the ability to fold makes PUFFER flexible so it can adjust its shape and size to various terrains. It can flatten and pull in its wheels when it needs to minimize its height to get into small spaces rovers can only stare at sadly. It can also descend into craters and roll up steep slopes, and to multiply its advantage, folded PUFFERS can stack on top of each other.
Project manager Jaakko Karras came up with the idea based both on origami and animals’ ability to squeeze into unlikely spaces. The team couldn’t use paper, of course, and opted for a circuit board instead. Trial and error resulted in the team deciding that two wheels would work better than four. PUFFER also has solar panels on its underside so it can recharge on its back.
PUFFER has been proving its mettle for the past 18 months during a series of tests in environments as extreme as Antarctica and the Mojave Desert. It can travel over 2,000 feet before needing to recharge its battery. It also has customizable parts, such as the equivalent of snow tires and a tail to help it on snow and ice.
Puffer Robot. Credit: NASA/JPL
The robot could gather information and/or images from out-of-the-way places on Earth—it can even fit in a geologist or archaeologist’s backpack—but JPL scientists hope to see PUFFER on Mars, working with Curiosity or Opportunity. The team is currently adding different devices that would allow it to retrieve samples or examine its surroundings via instruments such as a spectrometer. Eventually, they hope that instead of being remotely controlled, PUFFER will be able to move autonomously.
“Small robotic explorers like PUFFER could change the way we do science on Mars,” says Karras. We’re looking forward to seeing the little robot on the Red Planet. Good things come in small packages, indeed.