Thursday, April 07, 2005

Nanotech Swarms

NASA takes the first step to developing Shape-Shifting Robot Nanotech Swarms to send to Mars

As the engineers watched like anxious new parents, the robot pyramid traveled across the floor of a lab at NASA Goddard. Robots of this type will eventually be miniaturized and joined together to form "autonomous nanotechnology swarms" (ANTS) that alter their shape to flow over rocky terrain or to create useful structures like communications antennae and solar sails.

In the leadin to this item, NASA refers to them as nanotechnology, with a bunch of nanorobots moving like a giant amoeba over the rugged terrain, flowing around large rocks and over small ones, and growing stalks that carry instruments. CSM and USA Today also talked about a swarm of microscopic robots — so-called nanobots — that could change its function and shape at will. NASA is going to have to do a LOT of minaturization before these things can be called microscopic.
"This prototype is the first step toward developing a revolutionary type of robot spacecraft with major advantages over current designs," said Dr. Steven Curtis, Principal Investigator for the ANTS project, a collaboration between Goddard and NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va. Using advanced animation tools, Langley is developing rover operational scenarios for the ANTS project.

The robot is called "TETwalker" for tetrahedral walker, because it resembles a tetrahedron (a pyramid with 3 sides and a base). In the prototype, electric motors are located at the corners of the pyramid, which are called nodes. The nodes are connected to struts which form the sides of the pyramid. The struts telescope like the legs of a camera tripod, and the motors in the nodes are used to expand or retract the struts. This allows the pyramid to move: changing the length of its sides alters the pyramid's center of gravity, causing it to topple over. The nodes also pivot, giving the robot great flexibility.

In January, 2005, the prototype was shipped to McMurdo station in Antarctica to test it under harsh conditions more like those on Mars. The test indicated some modifications will increase its performance; for example, placing the motors in the middle of the struts rather than at the nodes will simplify the design of the nodes and increase their reliability.

No comments: