Explore Uncharted Territory With NASA’s Origami-Inspired Robot

04 April 2017
Posted by Megan Ray Nichols.

Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, usually brings images of delicate paper swans and dragons to mind. While it's a worthwhile hobby, folding paper frogs won't get us to space — so why is everyone so excited about origami-inspired robots?

The deceptively simple answer is that these robots can travel where traditional rovers and other exploring robots can’t by changing their shape to adapt to their environment. But what does this mean for exploration — both out in the stars and back here at home?

Meet PUFFER

PUFFER is an acronym for “Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot.” While the name is intriguing, the robot itself is much more exciting. It's a small robot — some models are barely larger than the palm of your hand — that can climb over or crawl under obstacles, work in nearly any environment and, quite possibly, change the way we explore another planet.

Currently, we have a rover on Mars named Curiosity. While it has been a great tool for exploring the Red Planet, it’s quite large at nine feet long and right around seven feet high. It can roll right over most obstacles, but its size prevents it from getting into the smaller nooks and crannies to see what they might hide. Enter PUFFER. It might not get far on its own with those tiny wheels, but if it’s paired with something like the Curiosity Rover, it could find secrets in places Curiosity could never hope to reach.

These little robots store flat, stack neatly and can be deployed at a moment’s notice, providing an extra tool for scientists to gather as much information as possible about our celestial neighbors before we finally get there.

So far, these little origami 'bots have been tested in some of the harshest environments imaginable — from the scorching desert to the freezing wastes of Antarctica — and have yet to encounter an obstacle they can’t overcome.

How Does It Work?

PUFFER is little more than a couple of wheels attached to either side of a printed circuit board. That’s what makes it versatile. It can use its wheels in an upright configuration to travel over even terrain, fold its wheels to allow it to crawl under low-hanging rocks or use its “tail” to climb over obstacles.

At the heart of these little robots are printed circuit boards, or PCBs. These boards are infinitely adaptable, can be made out of a variety of different materials and are commonly used in many different electronics. That's why these boards are perfect for little robots like PUFFER, according to Dan Thau, CEO of Millennium Circuits Limited:

“Since PCB’s can be very small and even flexible, it would allow the robot to have the PCB go throughout the entire product or just be at the center and still power the robot.”

In PUFFER, the boards will most likely sit in the center of the ‘bot to provide the maximum amount of flexibility. But with advances in PCB creation, the possibilities are endless. PCBs could be used to run each wheel individually, for example, or control any tools or equipment that may be attached to the little robot in later models.

Destination: Mars

The eventual goal of projects like PUFFER is to create small, versatile robots that can be sent to Mars, Europa and, eventually, even farther than that. That’s why it’s important to create components that can stand up to the harshest environments.

“MCL’s PCBs are UL 94-V0 flame-rated, meaning they won’t burn up. Also, unlike wires, using a PCB will enable a user to save a lot of space. After assembly, the PCB can be conformal-coated to ensure the components and the PCB don’t get damaged due to humidity and more harsh environments.” Dan Thau's PCBs are ideal for applications on Mars, where PUFFER would be subjected to extreme cold, harsh winds and brutally dry conditions, or on Europa, where most of the moon is covered in ice.

They can also be self-sustaining, even in those harsh environments. Some designs call for the addition of solar panels on the belly of the 'bot, enabling it to power itself for extended periods of time by just flipping over to expose the panels to sunlight. Since the current version of the bot can drive about 2,000 feet on a single charge, those panels will likely be indispensable.

Theoretically, these little ‘bots could survive for months at a time on the surface of a hostile planet with little to no trouble, all the while sending back massive amounts of data as they explore. NASA is planning to send a mission to Mars in 2020 with a new, state-of-the-art rover, and the minds behind PUFFER are already planning to have their robots on that mission with a parent rover to guide them.

Prototype Development

PUFFER is small right now — initial prototypes were about the size of two quarters side by side. Now that they know this design is viable, NASA’s next step is to make it useful for space exploration and discovery.

The version of PUFFER that actually makes it to the surface of the red planet will probably be about the size of a breadbox. There are several reasons, the biggest of which is survivability. The larger size allows NASA scientists to make the robot more robust and better able to survive falls or rockslides. This version will also probably include small cameras and sampling devices so they can collect data.

The current version of the ‘bot is controlled by Bluetooth, but that isn't quite useful when it comes to remote control on Mars — at least until we get someone up there. The solution is to use software to provide a form of autonomy, allowing the rover and its PUFFER ‘bots to work as a collection team without having to guide their every move from Earth.

For a device inspired by folding paper, PUFFER could change the way we explore other planets and moons. It will be exciting to see the final version of this robot making its way to Mars in just three short years. What could we learn from the overhanging rocks, caves and lava tunnels on Mars that Curiosity is unable to explore? PUFFER will be the one to tell us.

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