A controller operating the Opportunity rover sees an intriguing rock formation. But the rover isn’t slated to stop yet. What if the controller could deploy a small robot to explore while Opportunity continues on its way? One NASA project could make it happen.

It’s called PUFFER and stands for Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robots. NASA describes it as “origami-inspired, ultra-compact rover technology.” PUFFERs aren’t meant to be stand-alone rovers. They are designed to complement a mission. Take the Opportunity example above. One concept image shows several PUFFERs being deployed by a future Mars rover.

Puffer rover concept

Cool, right? The concept shown above is now an operating robot. Here’s a PUFFER sensing an obstacle and adjusting its profile to squeeze underneath it. Or, it can opt to climb over.

How about a slippery incline? That’s nothing the PUFFER can’t handle.

Well, that would be handy for the slippery sand dunes on Mars.

A 45-degree incline with rocky obstacles is no obstacle for this little rover.

Hell, the parent rover doesn’t even have to be gentle when deploying them.

These little PUFFERs look great. But, it’s going to be a bit before they are ready for the final frontier. This hardy rover is part of an 18-month-long effort between JPL, University of California, Berkeley and Distant Focus Corporation in Champaign, Illinois.

Soon, the PUFFER team will head out to California’s Mojave Desert and run it through a series of tests to show it could be used on Mars.

While Mars is easy to imagine since we already have rovers on it, the team is also looking at how it could be used on other alien worlds like Europa. Their small footprint could also make them good at exploring smaller worlds where sending expensive rovers isn’t feasible. Imagine a half-dozen of these cruising around on Ceres.

A tiny frame won’t hold the PUFFERs back from conducting quality science. As part of the partnership with Distant Focus Corporation, a unique folded optic microscope is being developed for the small rovers. Instead of refractive lenses, a series of reflective mirrors will be used. That way, the rover can keep its folding structure – but also have the instruments it needs onboard to gather good science.

PUFFER will put its best wheel forward during the Mojave Desert tests later this year. If everything goes great, we could one day see a rover deploying multiple robots on the surface of Mars or some other distant world.


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