NASA’s Shapeshifting Origami Robot Squeezes Where Others Can’t

NASA may have equipped its Mars Curiosity rover with an impressive array of scientific instruments, but the robot attaché’s size and $2.5-billion price tag give its operators ample reason to steer clear of terrain that could jeopardize its mission. Which is a shame, because much of Mars’ craggy, cave-ridden, boulder-strewn landscape is so treacherous (planetary geologists literally call it chaos terrain), that big, expensive robots like Curiosity can’t risk accessing it. That’s why NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built Puffer. Short for Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot, Puffer is the agency’s latest origami-inspired device. JPL has experimented previously with collapsible solar panels based on the Japanese art of folding paper. Now it’s applying that craft to robots the size of a smartphone. Puffer can’t match the scientific capabilities of rovers like Curiosity, or its successor, the Mars 2020 rover. But it can shapeshift, allowing it to scuttle up inclines too steep and through nooks too small for bigger robots. That’s critical to exploration of the Red Planet, where some of the most science-rich places might be the hardest ones to reach.