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Squid Rovers and Stratospheric Gliders: NASA’s Latest Out-There Concepts

The space agency has selected its 2015 Innovative Advanced Concepts awardees, and there are some cool-sounding bots among them.
Artist's rendering of the soft robotic rover. Image: NASA/Cornell University/NSF

NASA gets to work on some pretty far-out projects, given that, you know, it's all about exploring space. But one of its programs pushes tech beyond even the space agency's usual boundaries. The newest additions to its agenda: a squid-like robot to explore gas giants, a stratospheric kite-surfer drone, and a whole host of crawling, hopping, and flying bots.

These are among the latest projects to receive funding from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which NASA describes as "a program that aims to turn science fiction into science fact."


So you end up with things like the rover, which looks like a tentacled deep sea creature. The "soft-robotic rover with electrodynamic power scavenging" project, led by Cornell University engineer Mason Peck, is a concept for exploring environments such as Jupiter's moon Europa. The idea is that the robo-tentacles could propel the rover and harvest energy via changing magnetic fields.

The researchers on this concept write that it's a "breakthrough" concept, explaining, "The bio-inspired technologies we propose to consider bypass the need to power rovers with limited-lifetime batteries, large solar arrays, or nuclear power."

There's naturally a big gap between an initial concept and actually building and using this kind of thing; we haven't yet seen any drones or robo-subs reach Saturn's moons. The point of NIAC is to offer some more out-there ideas a small amount of funding for initial concept development; each selected project is awarded around $100,000 to look at basic feasibility.

All the projects in the 2015 awards are pretty cool; robotic concepts, in particular, are strongly represented.

One project involves two glider-style drones tethered together by a (very strong) cable that could "sail" without a propulsion system. The drones could fly up to 3,000 feet apart, using the difference in wind speeds at different levels in the stratosphere to keep going. Like the squid rover, one advantage of this would be to offer an alternative to solar powered vehicles; in this case, the researchers envisage their project taking on the kind of work currently done by surveillance and communications satellites.

Other concepts include a group of bots working together as a "hive" to search for ice in the shadowy areas of the Moon, and wind-harvesting "WindBots" to explore gas giants.

If these sound pretty radical, that's entirely the point. The general mission that unites the goals of each concept is to push deep space exploration and reach places we haven't explored before—and we may need brand new tech to get us there.