Exploring alien worlds such as Saturn’s moon Titan can be treacherous for robotic rovers, especially since we still know so little about actual terrain and surface conditions. So NASA is developing small robots that can be ready for any environment by morphing into rolling spheres, flying drones, cave explorers, and even swimming submersibles.
The project is called Shapeshifter. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory tested a prototype in late September. The robot—a 3D-printed prototype resembling a drone encased in an elongated hamster wheel—rolled on the ground and then split in half, becoming two mini robots (“cobots”) that took flight with small propellers.
For now, Shapeshifter is semi-autonomous, but engineers envision a system comprising multiple cobots that can auto-assemble without needing commands from Earth. In large enough numbers, they could work together to carry heavy objects.