NASA is working on ‘soft robots’ to explore other worlds beyond Earth. They also intend to explore the moon as the next major destination.
Properties of Soft Robots
Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick are two interns at NASA who are working at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. They are working on developing soft robots’ actuators that can control the moving parts of the robots.
Soft Robots are actually flexible robots that can adapt to new environments. They can move in a similar way like living organisms. Thus, they are capable of expanding their range of motion, making it easier for them to squeeze into a tight spot.
Due to this feature, NASA intends to use them in exploring the moon and other worlds.
According to Fitzpatrick, when a soft robot is actuated, it changes depending on the properties of the material. It’s like a piece of rubber going from flat to the shape of a finger.
Designing of Soft Robot Actuators
The design of a soft robot is in an early stage. Moreover, it’s not space-ready yet. However, the interns are researching on to how to use these actuators in a real space mission. They have built a 3D-printing model of the actuators using silicone and another flexible substance.
The actuator has chambers or air bladders that compress and expand based on the amount of air in them. Currently, the actuators can be operated through a series of tubes in the air bladders. This allows them to control the movement of the robot. So, by adjusting the amount of air in the chambers, the robot can flex and relax, just like a human muscle.
At the moment, the interns are working on the four key properties of the actuators. These include; mobility, joining, leveling and shaping. They will further investigate on how to use them in space exploration.
Here, mobility refers to how the robot moves in its surrounding while joining is related to how robots can link together. Like if the robots need to make a large temporary shelter then how they can join together. Moreover, leveling refers to how the actuators can create a surface, such as filling the space underneath a lunar habitat. And shaping refers to examining ways of adding strength to materials like dust shields.
These four properties of the actuators are like the crux of the problem for the interns. Once they are able to accomplish them in individual unit tests, they would figure out ways to combine them that would enhance the functioning of the soft robots.
Sullivan and Fitzpatrick are working with the principal investigator of the project, James Neilan who’s also a computer engineer. Another member of the research team is Matt Mahlin who is an aerospace research engineer. Both James and Matt have created this intern project at NASA’s Langley Research Center to examine how well the soft robots would work in space.