NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is pretty much a non-stop source of amazing things, and the latest is the PUFFER, or Pop-Up Flat Folding Robot. The design of the robot is inspired by origami, and folding is its specialty. The robot can tuck in its wheels and flatten out to fit under overhead limits that might prevent a typical rover from gaining entry, meaning it can explore the surfaces of distant moons and planets much more thoroughly.
How the robot works is pretty easy to grasp if you view the video above, or the GIF below. Basically, the wheels flatten down almost parallel with the ground, still providing some traction but really maximizing overhead clearance. It has solar panels on its underside for charging up, and the wheels have a tread meant to give it purchase on steeper climbs of up to 45 degrees in incline. There’s a tail, too, which stabilizes the bot as it makes its way around.
PUFFER isn’t only useful in space; on Earth, it could help scientists reach volcanic crevasses and other places where it’s hard for traditional robots to go, and impossible for humans to reach. The next step in its development is adding sensors and other instruments for scientific study capabilities, and also giving it some autonomous smarts (it’s currently remote-controlled via Bluetooth) so that it can act not only on its own, but also in coordinated swarms.
You can imagine a larger rover carrying a belly full of PUFFERs flat-packed for maximum storage capacity. Then it can deploy the origami bots for more detailed exploration of its immediate surroundings when it finds a suitable spot for study. Also, I want these as pets, so let’s work on that, too.