Mar 27, 2017 | By Tess

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been behind some groundbreaking projects in the field of space exploration, and one of its most recent projects, though small in size, has us pretty excited. NASA is developing a Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot, PUFFER for short, a tiny 3D printed robot inspired by origami that is destined to accompany rovers in space.

(Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The PUFFER robot, which NASA has been testing in a variety of environments over the past year and half (including the Mojave Desert and Antarctic hills), is capable of climbing and crawling over many types of terrain, as it can flatten itself, tuck its wheels in, and even lift itself up with its tail. The idea behind the small 3D printed robot was to make a companion, a sort of assistive scout, for larger robots such as exploratory rovers.

As Jaakko Karras, the PUFFER’s project manager at JPL, explains: “[PUFFERs] can do parallel science with a rover, so you can increase the amount you’re doing in a day. We can see these being used in hard-to-reach locations—squeezing under ledges, for example.”

Specially designed to be able to climb up steep 45-degree slopes, scuttle under low overhangs, and even drop into craters, the PUFFER is certainly equipped for exploring. Additionally, because the robot is so small and can be compacted (like a deck of cards), the idea is to deploy a number of them alongside a larger robot, which could “flick” them out, and send them off to explore remote and even hazardous areas.

PUFFER robot maneuvers under rocky terrain

(Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ultimately, the goal is to send the PUFFER project to another planet, such as Mars, though the scientists behind the 3D printed robot have also said it would offer unique advantages on planet Earth as well. For instance, JPL scientist Carolyn Parcheta, who specializes in volcanic exploration, has suggested that small robots like PUFFER could be invaluable in the field of geology. "Having something that's as portable as a compass or a rock hammer means you can do science on the fly," she said.

PUFFER’s design, which resembles something between a child’s motorized toy and a battle bot, was actually inspired by origami. That is, as a grad student at UC Berkeley’s Biomimetic Millisystem Lab, Karras came up with the design while folding paper and experimenting with origami. Once the project got off the ground, however, origami was traded in for printed circuit boards and 3D printed parts.

As its design currently stands, PUFFER consists of two foldable wheels with prominent treads, a tail which provides stabilization, solar panels on its underside (which allow it to recharge in the sun), and complex electronics, which allow it to be wirelessly controlled. The robot’s movement, described as a “skittering walk,” was developed in partnership with the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab. Finally, Illinois-based company Distant Focus Corporation helped equip PUFFER with a high-res microimaging system that is capable of registering objects as small as 10 microns in size.

As mentioned, NASA has been testing its PUFFER robot for over a year now, taking it to various rough terrains such as Rainbow Basin in California, an environment that is often used as a simulation of Mars’ landscape. On a level dirt path, the scientists have stated that PUFFER can drive roughly 625 meters (2,050) feet on a single battery charge. The small robot has also been tested in snowy terrain, where its standard wheels have been substituted for larger wheels, and its tail has been updated to be flatter and wider.

Of course, there is still room for improvement for the PUFFER robot, as NASA is currently working on developing scientific instruments for the small bot that could help it perform certain tests, such as sampling water, or studying the chemical makeup of a given environment. And while part of the PUFFER’s appeal is that it is tiny and could easily accompany a rover, NASA’s JPL is also working on a larger PUFFER robot, which would offer increased robustness.

One of the most significant next steps is to make the PUFFER robot smarter, even giving it some autonomy. NASA reportedly envisages deploying a cluster of the small robots, which could communicate independently and conduct science as a team. "Small robotic explorers like PUFFER could change the way we do science on Mars," commented Karras. "Like Sojourner before it, we think it's an exciting advance in robotic design."

(Image: Dylan Taylor)

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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