Meet PUFFER, NASA's Origami-Inspired Scout Robot

Mar 24, 2017 02:18 PM EDT

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena has developed a nifty companion for its future rovers. Inspired by origami, the JPL team developed a lightweight scout robot capable of flattening itself, tucking in its wheels and crawling into very small places where most rovers won't fit.

The robot, dubbed as Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (PUFFER), was made to explore areas that might be too risky for rovers to go, including areas with steep slopes or behind sand dunes.

"They can do parallel science with a rover, so you can increase the amount you're doing in a day," said Jaakko Karras, PUFFER's project manager at JPL in a statement. "We can see these being used in hard-to-reach locations -- squeezing under ledges, for example."

PUFFER's body was made out of a 3D printed-circuit board. By having a circuit board body, developers easily integrated electronic, such as control and rudimentary instruments, to PUFFER.

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"The circuit board includes both the electronics and the body, which allows it to be a lot more compact," said Christine Fuller, a JPL mechanical engineer who worked on PUFFER's structure and tested it for reliability, in a press release. "There are no mounting fasteners or other parts to deal with. Everything is integrated to begin with."

Aside from its circuit board body, PUFFER also boasts a set of treaded-wheels that allows it to climb inclines. The wheels can also be folded over the main body, allowing PUFFER to crawl. The developers also added a tail for additional stability and solar panels on its belly for recharging.

NASA contracted several companies during the development of PUFFER. The Biomimetic Millisystems Lab is responsible for developing the "skittering walk" that keeps the bot inching forward, one wheel at a time.

The Illinois-based Distant Focus Corporation provided a high-resolution micro imager, which is sensitive enough to see objects that are a fraction of a diameter of a human hair, while California-based Pioneer Circuits helped integrate a strong textile known as Nomex into the folding circuit boards.

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