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Mar 24, 2017 01:50 AM EDT

NASA Gives Rover An Origami-Inspired Robot Scout

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NASA has designed an origami-Pop-UP Flat Folding Explorer (PUFFER) to take on terrains that would be difficult for Rovers to reach on future NASA missions.

PUFFER's small size and weight make it possible for NASA engineers and designers to pack numerous into a larger Rover with low impact on payload cost. According to team member Christine Fuller, a mechanical engineer at JPL, everything is integrated with PUFFER, citing there are no mounting fasteners or other parts to deal with.

It originally had four wheels, however, design evolution gave the robot two wheels instead, which it can then fold over its main body, allowing the miniature Rover crawl in addition to being able to roll.

Jaakko Karras, project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, took the basic principles of origami designs by developing robotics based on natural forms, like animal and insect movement. In creating PUFFER, he swapped out paper for circuit boards. The boards are ingeniously designed to incorporate both PUFFERs circuitry and its main body, allowing it to be more compact.

PUFFER is designed with a tail to give it added stability and comes with a high-resolution "microimager" camera, according to Space.com. Curiously, solar panels are located on its belly and will flip over when its batteries need to recharge.

Its main function is to scout out locations and explore areas that are off limits to its parent Rover. It would also be possible for the Rover to increase its reach and perform more tasks by working in concert with a PUFFER or two in tow.

NASA reported that PUFFER can traverse 45-degree inclines, as well as, investigate inclines and be dropped into pit or craters. The folding robot has a range of about 2,050 feet (625 meters) on flat surfaces, on one single charge.

Designed to be scout robots alongside larger Rover's, PUFFER can fold itself flat and can be stacked along with other PUFFERs, on top of one another. Plans are now underway to add scientific instruments, such as gear that can identify carbon-containing organic molecules, and provide it with autonomous capabilities.

Currently, the diminutive robot can only be controlled remotely via Bluetooth. NASA says future PUFFER iterations may also increase its size as big as a breadbox for added durability. A PUFFER prototype has been undergoing tests for the past 18 months and has already performed field tests in Big Bear, California; a ski resort in Grand Junction, Colorado; and on Antarctica's Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on Earth.

Karras said that small robotic explorers like PUFFER could potentially change the way we do science on Mars. He thinks that like Sojourner, PUFFER is an exciting advance in robotic design.

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