NASA Does Origami, Too

This has become “Origami days” at this blog. As I said earlier, these days all engineering students should do a unit in Origami.

NASA’s neverending quest to create small and adaptable spacecraft and rovers has led to wild innovation, including tensegrity and this spring, PUFFER, a “pop-up” robot [1, 2].

This little guy isn’t exactly Origami, but it is a flat-pack design that was bio-inspired and origami inspired.. The general thinking is to create small, compact mini rovers that could ride along on a NASA rover, extending its coverage and capabilities. PUFFER is being prototyped, including filed tests in desert and snow.

One challenge that foldable robots face is that the flexible structure is rugged, but the hinge points tend to wear out and break. This is one area where relatively exotic materials may make a crucial different. Where a folded paper crane will last an hour, a folded Kelvar crane might last a year. 🙂

Small flat pack robots might be deployed in swarms (possibly even from a “Curiosity class” rover). NASA is thinking about mission scenarios / use cases where swarms might be valuable.

One scenario is exploring a cave or crevasse with no line of sight and poor communication. A chain of PUFFERs could form an and hoc network of relays, reaching far into the otherwise inaccessible area. This enables the main rover to deploy sensors as far as a chain can be built.

A second and very vivid scenario would be descending a cliff to steep to climb and too high to jump down. The PUFFERs could cooperate like mountain climbers, roping together to support each other. Several PUFFERs would hang on, while one moves. That’s such a cool image to imagine!

One example would be a situation where you want to get into really adverse terrain, such as a steep cliff face, that is beyond the capabilities of a PUFFERs driving independently. Here, PUFFERs could instead link up in a manner similar to rock climbers working in tandem, and cooperatively climb the slope.” ([1] quoting designer Jaakko Karras:)

Cool stuff.

  1. Evan Ackerman, PUFFER: JPL’s Pop-Up Exploring Robot, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.
  2. Andrew Good,  Origami-inspired Robot Can Hitch a Ride with a Rover.March 20 2017,


Robot Wednesday

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