The concept might include 12 robots that can fly or swim, exploring caves and oceans and going where different robots have not been able to explore. They’re known as cobots, each equipped with a propeller. The researchers envision cobots that might come together automatically, without anyone from Earth sending commands, to form into a rolling sphere, fly independently or even create a daisy chain whereas exploring a cave.
The present prototype seems to be more like a semi-autonomous hamster wheel with a drone at the center. It could split and form two flying drones. It is tested as a part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts research program. The program funds concepts that sound impossible, however, could help make scientific discoveries in the future.
Ali Agha, a principal investigator at JPL, could see Shapeshifter exploring Titan, Saturn’s moon with bodies of liquid methane on the surface. A drone lander referred to as Dragonfly will set off for Titan in 2026 to follow up on observations made by NASA’s Cassini mission that previously explored Saturn and Titan. Cassini was capable of performing only flybys of Titan.
Shapeshifter might explore the moon itself, together with possible ice volcanoes or caves hiding beneath its dense atmosphere.
In concept, the cobots could depend on a spacecraft lander that may deliver them to Titan, provide energy and carry instruments for experiments and analysis. They would need the lander to be portable. If it has been similar in size to the European Space Agency’s Huygens Probe, which traveled with Cassini and explored Titan, Agha estimates that ten cobots could lift and carry the lander. The Huygens Probe was 9 feet wide.
The concept might be submitted in 2020 for the Phase II’s selection process, with the team’s hopes of in the future exploring Titan.