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NASA’s real-life Transformer bot will crawl, fly and swim on Saturn’s bizarre moons 

By Elizabeth Rayne
NASA Shapeshifter

When you think of a shapeshifting robot, you probably imagine something like Optimus Prime, but NASA’s Shapeshifter can morph into even more things than a Transformer.

The Shapeshifter is a new prototype of a robot in the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC) being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. Depending on where this bot needs to go, it can divide itself into smaller “cobots” that can assume different forms. The Shapeshifter team is currently testing a 3D-printed prototype of this real-life Optimus Prime so it can someday explore Titan and other faraway moons.

Right now, Shapeshifter looks like a giant hamster wheel—until it splits in half and each part activates a propeller and takes to the air like a flying drone. The team is creating a design that will include up to 12 cobots arranging and rearranging themselves (or moving independently), each equipped with a small propeller. They will be able to roll across the ground as a sphere, fly through alien atmospheres, crawl up the walls of a cave or act as an underwater probe that plunges into the viscous, oily methane lakes and seas of Titan.

"It is often the case that some of the hardest places to get to are the most scientifically interesting because maybe they're the youngest, or they're in an area that was not well characterized from orbit," said Jason Hofgartner, JPL lead scientist for Shapeshifter. "Shapeshifter's remarkable versatility enables access to all of these scientifically compelling places."

Shapeshifter emerged from the need for something that could adapt to the type of place it encounters. Titan is cold enough to rain methane and ethane, which are naturally found in gas form on Earth. When Cassini (RIP) did over a hundred flybys of the moon, it saw the potential for rocky terrain, cryovolcanoes, and caves concealed by a thick and hazy atmosphere.

“We thought about how to create a system that is versatile and capable of traversing different types of terrain but also compact enough to launch on a rocket," said JPL Principal Investigator Ali Agha.

The spacecraft should also be able to carry around a lander like the ESA’s Huygens Probe, which was deployed by Cassini and parachuted down to Titan. Shapeshifter will carry around a portable “mothercraft” to power the cobots and hold the scientific instruments so they can analyze any samples collected. Shapeshifter is already semi-autonomous, but the team wants it to function completely on its own by the time it gets to Titan.

It might be a while until we see Shapeshifter in action off Earth, since Dragonfly is venturing out there first, but it could mean NASA getting an entire following made up of Transformers fans.

(via NASA)