Do you think the robots are square corners and rigid metal parts? Think again.
Two interns at NASA are part of a larger group working on "soft robots" that could be used to explore worlds beyond Earth. This includes the moon, NASA's next important destination for astronauts.
The advantage of a soft robot is that it is flexible and, in some way, is better able to adapt to new environments. Soft robots move in a similar way to living organisms, which expands their range of motion, perhaps facilitating compression in a narrow place, for example.
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Interns Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick are working at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to create smooth robot actuators. (Actuators are components of the machine that control the moving parts of a robot).
"When the soft robot is activated, it changes the way the properties of the material are used," Fitzpatrick said in a statement. "A piece of rubber that goes from flat to the shape of a finger, changes the material to something else."
The design is at an early stage and is not nearly ready for space, but the interns are trying to see how these actuators could be used in a real space mission. Sullivan and Fitzpatrick build the actuators by printing a mold in 3D and then pouring it into silicone or another type of flexible substance.
"By design, the actuator has cameras, or air chambers, that expand and compress depending on the amount of air they contain," NASA said in the statement. "Currently, these two interns are operating the design through a series of tubes in the air chambers, which allows them to control the movement of the robot." By adjusting the amount of air in the camera of the soft robotic actuator, the robot can flex and relax, like a human muscle. "
In particular, the interns are investigating four key properties of the actuators: mobility, union, leveling and conformation, and how to use them in space exploration. Mobility refers to how the soft robot moves in its environment, while the union refers to how robots can be linked (for example, to make a great temporary shelter). Leveling refers to how actuators can create a surface, such as filling space under a lunar habitat, while conformation examines ways to add strength to materials such as dust shields.
"We see these four things as the crux of the problem, once we can meet the individual unit tests, we would like to find ways to combine them, so we might combine mobility and unions," Sullivan said in the same statement.
Both inmates work with the principal investigator and computer engineer James Neilan, as well as co-author investigator and aerospace research engineer Matt Mahlin, who together created this internal project at NASA's Langley Research Center to examine how well robots would work soft in space. This month, researchers and robotics experts from across the country will visit Langley to give interns comments on their soft robotics, and students will continue to make improvements throughout the summer, NASA added.