If I told you NASA had created a rover to explore new worlds, it would probably conjure images of a vehicle with four wheels, a solar array, and a tripod camera. Since Sojourner, the first Mars rover, left Pathfinder in 1996 to explore the Martian surface, this classic design — a small vehicle slowly rolling along — has been repeated in rovers from Spirit to Opportunity.
The problem with wheels, however, is that they have a tendency to get stuck in sandy and dusty environments. As Audi explained in a video regarding its new Lunar Quattro rover, this is particularly a problem on the moon, where lunar dust is 1,000 times finer than dust on Earth.
In an effort to avoid the dreaded "stuck rover" scenario, NASA is experimenting with new designs inspired not by vehicles, but by amoebas, slugs and worms. As discovered by Becky Ferreira at Motherboard, the agency was recently awarded a patent for an "amorphous surface robot." Rather than roll, this concept rover, a rather un-sexy blob, would slink and slither its way over the surface.
“The presently disclosed robots change shape in the direction of intended travel to provide improved surface mobility along with enhanced protection from the elements,” the patent summary explains.
In a fact sheet on the technology, NASA says its currently exploring four takes on this amorphous design. A Bladder Bot (utilizing fluid in a membrane to push the rover along), an Inchworm Bot (utilizing magnetic fluid pushed through an electromagnetic ring), Electromagnetic Sphere Robot (electromagnetic spheres in a fluid membrane), and a Polymer Cell Robot (with expanding and contracting cells inside a membrane.)
Beyond space exploration, NASA also sees these robots playing a role here on Rarth in search-and-rescue missions or pipeline inspection.
"The advantages of amorphous robots would be many, including greater mobility, passive shape changing to allow the robot to pass through odd-shaped openings, and immunity to dust and contamination," researchers write in a release. "This idea is completely scalable from small to enormous robots."