NASA Considers Shapeshifting Drones for Upcoming Missions

NASA engineers are working on a shapeshifting exploration drone to explore alien worlds.

A team of NASA engineers is working to build a robot that can shapeshift and explore remote terrain well beyond the confines of our terraqueous dome.

Aptly named the Shapeshifter, NASA’s experimental drone’s appearance is about as odd as the robot is capable. Shaped like a hamster wheel, the 3D-printed drone is comprised of two hemispheric components, each of which contains a quadcopter-like hub at its center. From this configuration the Shapeshifter can roll across terrain as a single larger unit, and, when ordered, can split into two flying members.

“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, Jet Propulsion Laboratory lead scientist for Shapeshifter. “Shapeshifter’s remarkable versatility enables access to all of these scientifically compelling places.”

Although Shapeshifter’s morphology gives it some advantages over traditional exploration craft, the drone has enormous potential for changing the way researchers assay other worlds.

Ali Agha, Shapeshifter’s principle investigator, imagines that future incarnations of his robot could be made completely autonomous, making it easier to explore vast regions of otherwise unknown worlds without the need for human intervention. Additionally, Agha believes that Shapeshifter could be paired with a larger, more sophisticated mother craft to help ferry that scientific hub from location to location as more detailed reconnaissance of a planet is delivered by the Shapeshifter itself.

For the time being, Shapeshifter is still in the “advanced concepts” phase of the NASA development pipeline; however, with missions to Europa and Titan planned and proposed for the early and late 2020s, respectively, don’t be surprised to see dynamic shapeshifting (and possibly artificially intelligent?) robots leading the way for deep space, off-world exploration.