Shape-shifting space robots help firefighters on Earth

The designer of a new type of rover for NASA has found a way to use his space robots on Earth — by adapting them to help first responders enter disaster zones.

Challenge: Robots have played a major role in space exploration, examining the surfaces of Mars, the Moon and even an asteroid in previously impossible detail.

Deploying space robots is complicated. to get Perseverance Rover For Mars, NASA had to nest the robot inside a protective lander. After slowing its descent with a parachute and rockets, the lander used a cable system to lower the robot to the surface of the Red Planet.

Not only is this more complex, but it also means more weight, space and cost to transport Percy And Its landing on Mars.

Idea: In 2014, NASA awarded UC Berkeley researcher Alice Agogino $500,000 to develop space robots that would not require a separate lander to reach the surface of another object in space.

„Roboway Landing Device.”

Terry Fong

His idea was to create a spherical skeleton of rods and elastic cables based on the design principle of tension integrity or „tensegrity” — a concept that caused some head-scratching. „Anti-gravity” structures You can watch on YouTube or TikTok.

The robot’s critical sensors and instruments are located at the center of this ball, and in the event of a fall, the force of the impact is transmitted throughout the skeleton, keeping the main payload safe.

„[T]”He’s a robot and a landing gear.” said Terry Fong is chief roboticist for the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center. „It can survive a drop from a great height and keep going.”

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Once on the ground, the joints of the rod and cable system can be adjusted to roll the robot in any direction. When transporting in space, the skeleton can be folded flat to save room.

„Injecting mass into space is expensive and difficult, so it should be used on the surface with scientific instruments and other payloads, beyond landing,” Fang said.

Terrain Technology: NASA is still considering when and how to deploy these rolling space robots. Standard versions Squishy Robotics, a company founded to commercialize the technology, is already making an impact on Earth.

„We thought, wow, if we can do this on the moon, we can do it on Earth and save some lives,” Agogino said.

Disaster response is a way for them to save lives. Several pilot projects with firefighters, robots equipped with cameras and tiny chemical gas sensors, have shown how drones can help those deployed in disaster areas better understand the situation.

„We thought, wow, if we can do this on the moon, we can do it on Earth and save some lives.”

Alice Agogino

If the robots’ data reveals that no hazardous material gear is required, for example, it can save up to an hour of preparation time, meaning a faster response.

Squishy interacts with military customers. It envisions dropping robots into dangerous areas from drones, helicopters, or low-flying aircraft (even when bots drop up to 1,000 feet). Cameras and sensors can then collect data without risking the players’ safety.

„We believe these robots can perform missions unique to space,” Fang said. „[Agogino] I clearly saw a way to make a big impact on Earth.”

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