Autobots, roll out: NASA creates transforming robot for exploring Titan

A prototype of the transforming robot Shapeshifter is tested in the robotics yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Shapeshifter is made of smaller robots that can morph into rolling spheres, flying drones, swimming submersibles, and more. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Finally, the future that children of the ’80s want to see is on its way. NASA is working on its very own Transformer — a bot called Shapeshifter, made up of smaller robots which can combine into different configurations to roll, swim, fly, and float.

Shapeshifter is a prototype for exploring Saturn’s moon Titan. Before it ended its mission by burning up in Saturn’s rings, the Cassini probe flew by Titan more than one hundred times, observing the moon which is surprisingly similar to Earth. It has rivers, lakes, and rain, but instead of being made of water, these bodies are made of liquid methane and ethane. On Earth, these are gases, but in the freezing temperatures of Titan, they are liquid. Cassini collected mapping data of the surface, and scientists have been keen to discover more since then.

“We have very limited information about the composition of the surface [of Titan],” Ali Agha, Principal Investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement. “Rocky terrain, methane lakes, cryovolcanoes — we potentially have all of these, but we don’t know for certain. So we thought about how to create a system that is versatile and capable of traversing different types of terrain but also compact enough to launch on a rocket.”

The solution that the team came up with was a self-assembling robot made up of smaller robots called “cobots.” The cobots can move independently or chain together to stretch to hard-to-reach areas and can bundle themselves into a sphere to roll for more efficient movement.

The cobots can handle both land and liquid environments, making them ideal for moving around Titan. Currently, they operate semi-autonomously, but the scientists hope to get them operating autonomously so they can automatically assemble themselves into useful shapes without needing human guidance, turning them into tiny co-operative explorers.

“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,” Jason Hofgartner, JPL lead scientist for Shapeshifter, said in the same statement. “Shapeshifter’s remarkable versatility enables access to all of these scientifically compelling places.”

While Shapeshifter is still very much in the early stages of design and development, another craft is already scheduled to explore Titan. Dragonfly, a rotorcraft drone lander, is set to launch on a trip to Titan in 2026 and to reach the moon in 2034. If successful, this will be the first NASA craft to fly its own science payload to a new location, allowing it to explore Titan’s atmosphere and surface as well as its oceans.

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