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NASA’s PUFFER is a cute origami-inspired robot that goes where big rovers can’t

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PUFFER is intended to augment the exploration efforts of the next generation of rovers.

The great explorers Lewis and Clark knew the importance of team expeditions. Now, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California are developing a small scout robot called the Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (PUFFER) to accompany the next generation of Martian rovers in their outer space explorations.

Inspired by origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, PUFFER is designed to change shape in order to squeeze into small crevasses that are too tight for rovers to reach. So far the two-wheeled scout has been successfully tested in hostile and diverse terrains including the Mojave Desert and Antartica.

Though rovers themselves are built to last, they’re expensive and NASA engineers take care not to send them on overtly dangerous missions. A handful of PUFFERs are comparatively cheap and can be deployed in high-risk regions.

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

Karras developed the PUFFER design by combining various origami techniques and biomimetic movements. The scout originated with four wheels but was eventually reduced to two with the addition of large treads that allow it to better grip and climb inclines. If PUFFER needs to recharge, it can simply flip over and collect sunlight through solar panels on its underside.

Now that PUFFER can roam, it needs to be fitted with Bluetooth so it can be controlled remotely and packed with scientific instruments that will enable it to take and evaluate water samples and study the chemical makeup of its environment. NASA also plans to scale it up slightly to the size of a breadbox in order to make it a bit more durable.