Space is an unforgiving place, and alien worlds are full of surprises that we humans cannot predict. To scout ahead for such surprises, engineers have developed tiny folding robots that can traverse just about any terrain.

In development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (PUFFER) can flatten itself to wheel under tight spaces, handle difficult inclines and bounce back after a fall. It's a durable little conglomeration of gears and circuits!

And it's already getting some field work here on Earth. It has explored rock slopes in Rainbow Basin, California, and even patrolled Mount Erebus, an active volcano in Antarctica, as researchers think about what the robot could do in outer space.

"They can do parallel science with a rover, so you can increase the amount you're doing in a day," said Jaakko Karras, PUFFER's project manager at JPL.

The idea is for PUFFERs to be a swarming team of scientifically-geared robots, going off in different directions from a rover and gathering data and samples. It might mean losing the PUFFER's size — the robot could eventually be as big as a bread box — but it might be worth it to learn more about other worlds.

Tiny origami robots are flexible space rovers
The Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot could explore terrain too rough for human explorers.