An Australian university student designed an origami-inspired robot during an internship with NASA.
Working for an organisation like NASA is a dream for many – talented people, advanced equipment and complex projects.
Chris Norman, a fourth-year mechatronics student from Curtin University recently lived out this dream during a six-month internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), bringing back with him some key skills.
Norman started the internship in Pasadena in January this year, where he worked on a folding robot with a pop-up feature that allows disposable robots to move across the terrain of Mars. The project, which is called PUFFER (Pop-up Flat-Folding Explorer Robot) utilises origami-inspired robots as a low-cost solution to navigating the difficult terrain of Mars, comprising a collapsible body and a ‘parent’ spacecraft.
“NASA is going to send 10 or so of these up to Mars along with the next Mars lander robot,” Norman said.
“When the rover drives around, there are a lot of areas that are of really high science interest to us, but we can’t actually get to them with a big robot because there are rocks or it’s too steep or just too narrow to be able to fit a big robot.”
Deploying a series of smaller robots that fold and unfold themselves would give researchers access to these areas.
A difficulty of developing the robots was designing the foldable aspect, said Norman, who did some of the mechanical design.
“You couldn’t position actuators or components or any of the things that you’d normally just put wherever you want … because they would be in the way of this folding mechanism,” he said.
“I had to be really creative about how I went about designing it to ensure that the robot could still fold properly, but would also still be able to drive around.”
He did this through iterating the whole design using 3D software, then 3D printing it.
NASA’s plan for Mars
Now: Testing technologies and people on the International Space Station on their readiness for long trips in space.
Nov. 2018: Three-week mission (without astronauts) beyond the moon followed later by a similar trip with astronauts.
2020: Next Rover mission to Mars.
2020s: Yearlong mission with astronauts into deep space, verifying habitation and testing readiness for a trip to Mars.
Late 2020s: Round trip robotic demonstration mission.
2030s: Mission with humans to orbit Mars.