Small, foldable Moon-scouting robots have been successfully tested in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in southern California, USA.
JPL developed the Autonomous Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (A-PUFFER) to scout regions on the Moon and gain intel about locations that may be difficult for astronauts to investigate on foot, such as hard-to-reach craters and narrow caves.
The latest iteration of A-PUFFER includes several modifications to the previous design.
In addition to larger wheels, each robot has an upgraded onboard computer with a wireless radio for communication and a stereo camera for sensing the environment in front of it.
In February 2020, engineers began testing the upgraded A-PUFFER robots. As each A-PUFFER is small enough to fit in a shoebox, multiple robots can be deployed to work together and collaborate on their task.
The team of three successfully trekked the sandy and rocky terrain of JPL’s Mars Yard while simultaneously mapping the environment using sensors.
Their maps were shared with a base station and merged into an integrated map of the Mars Yard.
Together, NASA said, this system demonstrates a capability that could robustly map parts of the Moon that haven’t been mapped before.
“Collaborative, multi-rover autonomy has the promise to unlock new missions that are either too risky for a single rover or simply require more than one rover to achieve,” said Jean-Pierre de la Croix, A-PUFFER project manager at JPL.
NASA said it will continue to test the autonomous-capable robots and that A-PUFFER technology could make its way to the Moon on a commercial lunar lander in the next few years.
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