Researchers at NASA are signaling the strong potential of flexible, light and adaptable robots, known as “soft robots,” for exploration of the moon, Mars and other places worthy of probing beyond Earth. A group of robotics experts from around the U.S. are expected to visit NASA’s Langley Research Center this month, to give feedback on ongoing efforts to develop new robotic candidates for space.
Robert Shepherd, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, researches soft machine concepts, including deformable robots. He says soft robots offer a multitude of benefits for space exploration, and can be improved with new materials and manufacturing techniques.
“Soft robots have a lot of benefits for space exploration, particularly since the constraints in NASA missions are very restrictive in terms of Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP). The radical volume and stiffness changes that soft robots can undergo means they can start off very small and inflate with gas to become stiffer — dramatically impacting the Size and Weight component of SWaP. Imagine sending an uninflated party balloon into space and then blowing it up to 100-1000 times its volume and then have it walk around and do work for you.
“The next challenge for us in the field is to take advantage of new materials and manufacturing techniques to increase the energy and power density of these robots, so that all axes of SWaP are improved.”