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NASA wants its own ‘transformers’: It’s designing shapeshifters to explore Titan’s lakes

Isabella Smith

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Before dying disintegrating in Saturn’s atmosphere , the Cassini probe had the opportunity to fly over 100 times Titan, the largest of its moons . Thanks to that, we were able to know its amazing superficial resemblance on Earth: lakes, rain and cliffs are part of Titan’s landscape, although there the rivers are methane and water ice rocks.

To learn more about this satellite, NASA announced last June that in seven years it will launch the ‘DragonFly’ (“Dragonfly”) mission with the aim of introducing an unmanned (and nuclear-powered) helicopter into the atmosphere Titanian in 2034.

However, NASA is already developing another more advanced machine so that one day it can give us more information about Titan’s surface. Its provisional name is ‘Shapeshifter’ (“Changemaker”) and will be a robot composed of smaller ones that can be combined with each other in different configurations that allow it to roll, swim, fly or float.

Exploring as a team (and without a compass)

Ali Agha, principal investigator of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains that

“We have very little information on the surface […] so we started thinking about how to create a system that was versatile and capable of crossing different types of terrain, but also compact enough to launch it into a rocket.”

The system chosen by the Department of Advanced Innovative Concepts of NASA was the use of ‘cobots’ , the ‘pieces’ of the Cambiaformas, small exploratory quadrocopters drones capable of moving, engaging and decoupling autonomously and cooperatively , according to the terrain conditions at any time, be it solid or liquid.

Thus, for example, part of the cobots could be assembled forming a hemisphere capable of floating in the liquid helium, while others remain in the air mapping possible obstacles with which they may encounter later. This information will help the set of cobots coordinate to adopt, if necessary, a new form that facilitates their progress .

This ability to map the terrain is fundamental, because it will be the only orientation method available for the Changemaker : since we do not have satellites orbiting Titan, GPS technology is not an option, and the satellite lacks even a magnetic field that could serve as a reference.

The currently operational prototype is, for now, only semi-autonomous, but scientists have set themselves the goal of making their artificial intelligence allow them to operate without the need for any human orientation .