NASA Team Building Shapeshifting Exploration Robot

Roboticist Ali Agha and his collaborators from Stanford University and Cornell University are building a morphing robot called Shapeshifter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. According to a NASA JPL press release, Shapeshifter would be a morphing, modular, self-assembling robot comprised of smaller robots that could operate independently. Those smaller robots would be able to morph into rolling spheres, flying drones, swimming submersibles, and more.

The landing portion of the system, or “mothercraft,” would measure about 9 feet wide and carry about 10 smaller robots dubbed “cobots.” Each cobot would be equipped with a small propeller along with components capable of swimming, floating, and navigating through caves. The lander would be equipped with various scientific instruments and tools and would provide an energy source for the cobots.

This morphing robot is still in its embryonic stage of development. Shapeshifter is semi-autonomous in its current form, requiring some human guidance. It will have to be made fully self-reliant before deployment if it is to be used to explore distant worlds. The Shapeshifter team will continue to work on their design and submit their concept to NASA’s Phase II selection process in 2020.

If the concept passes the approval process, the robot could eventually be used to explore Saturn’s moon Titan, the only object in the Solar System other than Earth to host a liquid at the surface. NASA’s Cassini mission, which flew by Titan over one hundred times, mapped lakes, rivers and seas of liquid methane on its surface. Titan also has a complex topography, with cave systems and volcanoes to explore.

The Shapeshifter concept is currently being developed as part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The program aims to encourage researchers to devise creative new ways of exploring distant worlds and offers several phases of funding to visionary concepts.