The Next Generation of Space Rovers Could Be Squishy Blobs With Bladders

By Bryan Lufkin on at

“Soft,” “amorphous,” and “bladder” aren’t words usually associated with robots. But NASA’s changing that with new plans to make space rovers physically softer, which could make them way better at exploring distant, rocky lands.

Last week, NASA was awarded a patent for a new, “amorphous robot [that] includes a compartmented bladder containing fluid.” A valve continually redistributes the fluid within the wheel-less, legless robot, allowing it to move in a blob-like fashion about the surface. The patent also says it could alternatively use electromagnets or an expanding-and-deflating polymer sac to slink around like a slug.

See, usually, space rovers like Curiosity are square and hard and metallic. Problem is, while they look rugged and durable, those clunky WALL-E-channelling ‘bots are just too heavy and get stuck easily. But this new patent can help the robot fluidly change shape and easily navigate weird terrain, whether it’s a rocky planetoid or a rubble-filled emergency zone here on Earth.

Soft robotics has been a quickly emerging area of study in the robot world in the past couple years. At Carnegie Mellon University, there’s an entire lab devoted to soft robotics—it’s even where the inspiration for Baymax, the friendly, balloon-like hero in Disney’s Big Hero 6, came from. Instead of being made of dystopian chrome, robots could instead be made of a softer, safer, more agile material.

The entire point behind soft robotics is to better integrate robots into humans’ day-to-day lives. With the recent explosion of personal robotics (from Pepper to Robohon) and increasingly life-like androids (like the robo-actress Geminoid F, anything else from Hiroshi Ishiguro), we can expect robots to get softer. This key design detail better equips them for both exploring space and living with people side-by-side.

[Justia Patents via Motherboard]

Image: NASA/United States Patent and Trademark Office

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