Scientists have invented a shape-shifting robot inspired by origami that can transport cargo, interact with people, and morph into countless forms and sizes, making it a promising design for future space missions, reports a new study.
Mori3, a polygon robot, is made up of triangular modules that connect to each other to form 3D meshes that can create a range of different structures suited for specific tasks and environments. Some of these basic concepts have already been explored in films like Interstellar, which features a sarcastic shapeshifting robot called TARS, or the classic Super Robot made of individual parts in the 1980s animated series Voltron.
Developed by a team co-led by roboticists Christoph Belke and Jamie Paik of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), with funding from the European Space Agency (ESA), Mori3 “demonstrates how physical polygon meshing provides a new framework for more versatile intelligent machines,” according to a study published on Monday in Nature Machine Intelligence.
“Mori3 is an example of physical polygon meshing in a robotic system,” Belke, Paik, and their colleagues said in the study. This work shows how physical polygons meshing can be used to achieve a higher degree of flexibility for shape-changing robots. We further demonstrate the effectiveness and usability of recreating diverse 3D shapes in a physical, articulated form with interconnected and distributed intelligence by validating our approach in distinct robotic applications.”
“Physical polygon meshing opens up new avenues for future robotic systems and has the capacity to transform anything from space missions, where the use of multiple single-purpose systems is not feasible, to interactive and assistive personal devices,” the researchers added.
Though Mori3 is not solely designed for space applications, its modular nature and shapeshifting abilities could offer some key advantages for missions beyond Earth.
For instance, Paik and her colleagues think Mori3 could one day support space-based communication infrastructure or perform repairs on external areas of spacecraft.
Because of the high cost to launch cargo or people into orbit, mission planners always look for ways that they can optimize weight and space on missions beyond Earth. This challenge will be amplified by attempts to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon this decade, as part of the NASA-led Artemis Program, or to ultimately send humans to more distant destinations, such as Mars.
Modular robots like Mori3 are one solution to this problem because they are spatially economical, functionally adaptable, and scalable to a variety of missions. Indeed, Mori3 is just part of a whole category of modular concepts with applications for spaceflight, such as magnetic blocks called “ElectroVoxels, walking robots called WORMs, and wheeled SMORES rovers.
While these designs are still in prototypical phases, NASA, ESA, and many other space entities recognize their potential to streamline complex missions.
“Groups of modular robots could be sent to a region of interest in the solar system; reconfiguration would allow them to alter themselves for a range of terrains including unexpected obstacles,” according to a 2022 study in the journal Electronics. “They could reconfigure for object manipulation as well as group motion tasks.”
“Using such reconfigurable modules would also provide a useful reduction in payload mass and, therefore, propellant requirements,” the study noted. “If some of these units fail, then others should still be able to accomplish many of a mission’s goals, this differs from present space robotics, where a minor failure somewhere can doom an entire mission.”
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