NASA is developing a group of shape-changing explorer robots called Shapeshifter to explore Saturn’s moons.
Source: Universe Today
Saturn’s moon Titan is on any planetary scientist’s list of potential targets for exploration. But any mission to Titan will have to contend with an environment unlike any other: frigid temperatures, cryovolcanoes, caves, and lakes and seas—and rain—of liquid hydrocarbons. In that environment, an MSL Curiosity-style rover would struggle.
Shapeshifter isn’t one robot, but several. They’re calling them ‘cobots’ and the individual cobots can fly, roll on the ground, and swim while submerged. This makes Shapeshifter well-suited to explore Titan, the only other world in the Solar System with liquid on its surface.
The team behind Shapeshifter includes researchers from Stanford and Cornell universities. When they developed the concept of a self-assembling robot made of smaller robots, they named them “cobots.” When the individual cobots join into one, the prototype rolls along on the surface like a kind of huge hamster wheel. When the mission calls for it, the individual cobots can separate from the whole, and fly or swim to their targets. At least that’s how it’s envisioned in this early, 3D printed prototype being tested at JPL.
This video show cobots as drones with extra parts to couple to other drones. Still is very different from artistic conception.
The version of Shapeshifter being tested right now is semi-autonomous, but if the idea comes to fruition, it will need to self-assemble autonomously, without waiting for individual instructions from Earth. With advances in AI and robotics, that’s probably just around the corner.
The Shapeshifter must have a swarm intelligence, was already published a post about the subject.
Shapeshifter wouldn’t be alone on Titan. It would be part of a larger mission design that includes a mothership. The mothership would be on the surface and could serve as an energy source for Shapeshifter. Since Titan’s atmosphere is so dense and hazy, and it’s so far from the Sun, a mission to Titan would likely be powered by a radioisotope thermal generator (RTG.) The small cobots would likely be battery-powered, and would recharge themselves with an RTG carried on the mothership.