Jul 15, 2019 | Updated: 10:46 AM EDT

NASA Investigating Soft Robots to Help Explore Other Worlds

May 09, 2019 02:19 PM EDT

(Photo : NASA: Screenshot of Soft Robot Video)

In a video released by NASA, a "soft robot" is seen to be moving with the use of air that is being pumped through several different tubes attached directly to it.

Two interns, Interns Chuck Sullivan, and Jack Fitzpatrick are working at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to create soft robot actuators. They are part of a larger team who's currently working on NASA's "soft robots" project.

Soft robots will have a bigger advantage over robots with metal parts since they're very flexible, and some times better in adapting to new environments. Their range of motion is much like living organisms thus making it easier to manipulate especially when squeezing into tight spots.

"When you actuate the soft robot, it changes how you use the material properties," Fitzpatrick said in a statement. "A piece of rubber going from flat to the shape of a finger, it changes the material into something else."

The design is not quite complete as of yet, and definitely not space-ready, but they are trying to test and see how these actuators could be used in a real space mission. They are trying to determine 4 key properties namely, mobility, joining, leveling and shaping. Mobility refers to the type and characteristic of the soft robot's movement in its environment while joining concerns how robots can link together, like when they're trying to create a shelter or when creating a base. Leveling refers to the creation of a surface, such as filling in space underneath a shelter, while shaping examines ways of adding strength to materials like dust shields.

As mentioned, the interns achieved these by a series of tubes attached to the unit that direct feed air into air bladders, and by adjusting the amount of air in the chamber, the robot can flex (compress) and relax (expand) much like a human muscle. Once they've conquered all four properties they can start figuring out how to combine them.

The project is headed by the principal investigator and computer engineer James Neilan, as well as co-principal investigator and aerospace research engineer Matt Mahlin. They are both working together along with the two interns at NASA's Langley Research Center to examine how well soft robots would work in space. Both interns will also be mentored by several researchers and robotic experts since they will be coming over to Langley to give interns feedback on their work.

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