NASA working on Transformers-like shape-shifting robots

Autobots, roll out to Saturn's moons!

Amanda Kooser
Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
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This Shapeshifter robot prototype goes for a roll in NASA's robotics yard.


Let me dig back into some deep childhood memories. There are regular Transformers robots that switch between humanoid and vehicle forms, and then there are Transformers with independent components that can mesh together into a single machine. NASA is developing a robot concept similar to the latter option with its Shapeshifter project.

NASA shared a look at a 3D-printed prototype Shapeshifter on Wednesday, describing it as "a contraption that looks like a drone encased in an elongated hamster wheel." The machine is in testing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory robotics yard in Pasadena, California.

The robotics yard is a dusty place designed to challenge machines that may encounter rugged conditions on other planets or moons. 

The current Shapeshifter test version has two halves that split apart and can fly as aerial drones , or they can combine together and roll along the ground. 

The Shapeshifter team has Saturn's moons in mind for the robot. NASA already has plans to send a rotorcraft (basically a large drone) to Saturn's moon Titan with the Dragonfly mission planned for 2026.  

A more advanced version of Shapeshifter would consist of a group of smaller robots called "cobots." The cobots could move independently, but also work together to traverse difficult terrain, explore caves, swim and even relocate a "mothercraft" lander from one place to another. 

Shapeshifter is in the very early stages of development as part of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program. The Shapeshifter team plans to apply for more NASA funding in 2020 to continue work on the project. 

Let's just hope there are no Decepticons hiding out on Titan.

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