"Mini robots that can roll, fly, float, swim, and even come together to morph into a single machine, may seem like something straight out of a science fiction movie. However, if a team of NASA scientists has its way, the self-assembling Shapeshifter may soon be exploring treacherous distant worlds in search of alien life.
Still in its preliminary stages, the flying, amphibious robot is the brainchild of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab roboticist, Ali Agha and researchers from Stanford University and Cornell University. The team's first prototype, unveiled on October 9, 2019, comprises two flight-capable drones, or "cobots," that fit together perfectly, like a puzzle, inside a pipe-frame cylinder structure. The circular robot can roll like a barrel, easily navigating stretches of flat or hilly terrain. When needed, one cobot can detach itself and, using the other as a launchpad, fly skyward with the help of its propellers.
The researchers envision the final version will have several cobots capable of forming different configurations to reach currently inaccessible space terrains. In addition to flying, the tiny machines will also be to interconnect to maintain contact with the surface and even morph into swimming robots. When their mini-missions are completed, the cobots will come together into a giant ball and roll to their next destination.
"It is often the case that some of the hardest places to get to are the most scientifically interesting because maybe they're the youngest, or they're in an area that was not well characterized from orbit," said Jason Hofgartner, JPL lead scientist for Shapeshifter. "Shapeshifter's remarkable versatility enables access to all of these scientifically compelling places."
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