Mars isn’t the closest planet to Earth, but it holds the most promise regarding human exploration. NASA has sent numerous orbiters to map the planet from orbit and rovers to navigate the planet’s surface and collect samples. The most recent NASA rover, Perseverance, and its robotic helicopter payload, Ingenuity, reached the Mars surface in February 2021 and are still operating.
NASA is fielding candidates for next-generation Mars rovers, and researchers at CalTech have an intriguing robot powered by Nvidia’s Jetson Nano embedded computing platform. At first glance, CalTech’s Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot (M4 Morphobot) looks like a smaller version of previously launched Mars rovers, albeit with narrower wheels. However, upon closer inspection, there are propellers inside each of the four wheels, which is vital to its Transformers-style antics.
The M4 Morphobot can drive along a surface using its four wheels in its standard operating mode. This is an energy-efficient way of covering ground, albeit at a slow pace. However, the M4 Morphobot can also rotate one set of wheels 90 degrees and rotate its body upward 90 degrees to position it vertically. In this position, two wheels provide a firm footing on the ground, while the propellers on the first set of articulated wheels provide additional forward momentum.
However, the most exciting form that the M4 Morphobot can take is as an aircraft. In this mode, all four wheels rotate outward 90 degrees, turning into a quadcopter, reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. This mode allows the M4 Morphobot to travel faster and to areas that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible by a wheeled vehicle. The robot can transform into eight different permeations to accomplish specific tasks, and its battery can last up to 30 minutes. However, the team is currently working on larger versions of the robot that can travel faster and farther while carrying heavier payloads.
The Caltech team, consisting of Dr. Eric Sihite, Dr. Arash Kalantari, Reza Nemovi, Dr. Alireza Ramezani, and Dr. Morteza Gharib, said that they took inspiration from animals in nature. Evolutionary demands have forced many species to survive by deftly adapting to their surroundings, so it made sense to the team to go down that path.
“The robotic biomimicry of animals’ appendage repurposing can yield mobile robots with unparalleled capabilities,” wrote the researchers in a paper published in Nature Communications. Taking inspiration from animals, we have designed a robot capable of negotiating unstructured, multi-substrate environments, including land and air, by employing its components in different ways as wheels, thrusters, and legs.”
While CalTech funded the initial research of the M4 Morphobot, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) provided funding for the subsequent phases of its development. The robot is currently a candidate for a future NASA Mars Rover mission. It should also be noted that its capabilities aren’t just applicable to missions off-planet; the U.S. Department of Transportation has also expressed interest in deploying robots based on this design.
The M4 Morphobot also has a lot of potential in search and fire rescue, where its “fly-in and drive” capabilities make it a versatile tool to help locate victims and perhaps deliver critical aid and/or supplies.
“We’re kind of dizzy about how it suddenly got so much attention,” said Gharib. “Different organizations want to do different things and are coming to approach us.”
You can learn more about the CalTech team’s research on the M4 Morphobot in this Nature article. We look forward to seeing what the team can achieve with future versions of the robot and if its design will eventually be selected for a future Mars mission.
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Brandon Hill is a senior editor at Tom's Hardware. He has written about PC and Mac tech since the late 1990s with bylines at AnandTech, DailyTech, and Hot Hardware. When he is not consuming copious amounts of tech news, he can be found enjoying the NC mountains or the beach with his wife and two sons.
The Morphobot has nothing to do with Mars, and is designed for entirely terrestrial applications.Reply
For the unique flight environment of Mars, the NASA proposal is to take the Ingenuity coaxial rotor helicopter and add wheels to the ends of the existing landing gear for ground mobility, rather than try and move the rotors about as wheels. A pair of these proposed vehicles were to co-land with the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) as part of the MSR (Mars Sample Return) programme as a replacement for the dedicated 'fetch rover' and as a fallback in the event Perseverance cannot self-deliver samples to the MAV, but due to mass and budget overruns at JPL they have been cut from the baseline mission.
Mars isn’t the closest planet to Earth (that distinction goes to Venus)On average, it's Mercury.
I'm no air scientist, but those little propellers look like they need a lot of air to fly, but Mars doesn't have very much air.Reply
I don't think it would fly on Mars with little propellers. But if you made the wheels a lot bigger so you could have much bigger propellers, then the wheels would be too heavy and awkward.
Also wheels get beaten up a lot, but you don't want the propellers to get damaged.
Which raises the question, "If we really have to have a tiny rover which also flies, why do the propellers need to be in the wheels?"
Then more generally, "Why would we bother sending a tiny rover that wouldn't be able to carry the important (and heavy) science-stuff that we want on Mars right now?"
It's a cool looking design for, like, a toy you want kids to buy. But I think this idea causes way more engineering problems than it solves.
I'm not sure this design was originally intended for Mars; I think they might have slapped that on as a marketing pitch to get funding.
Ed's point about sample collection makes sense to me. I'm just not sure how heavy those (full) sample jars are.Giroro said:Why would we bother sending a tiny rover that wouldn't be able to carry the important (and heavy) science-stuff that we want on Mars right now?"
Also, I think the roll that Ingenuity is currently performing is one of surveying and mission planning. Even with a limited payload, you can fly up (or down) to places you can't feasibly drive. I'd imagine there are probably a few scientific instruments small & light enough to fit as payloads of such a drone. Especially, if the payloads were modular and could be swapped out in situ.
Looks suspiciously like it needs to be on my Christmas list....Reply
Ingenuity is mostly a proof of concept.bit_user said:Also, I think the roll that Ingenuity is currently performing is one of surveying and mission planning.
"Can we fly an air vehicle on Mars at all?"
Result - Yes.
So far, the max horizontal distance is 704 meters, and a max altitude of 18 meters.
Yes, it was originally proposed as just an experiment in itself. That's why the only payload it has is basically a GoPro camera.USAFRet said:Ingenuity is mostly a proof of concept.
"Can we fly an air vehicle on Mars at all?"
Result - Yes.
However, once they concluded their planned flight & maneuverability tests, they said they were looking at other ways to use it to augment or facilitate their mission.
An important aspect of Ingenuity is that its flight is autonomous. It's controlled by a mid-range Snapdragon smartphone SoC from like 2016, so that might be a limiting factor in the complexity of its flight plans. Even so, I think it's interesting that little SoC is like 100x as powerful as the CPU in the Curiosity rover that's like Ingenuity's mothership.
They probably don't want to risk falling out of communication with the Curiosity rover. Also, as Ingenuity has a limited battery capacity, I'm not sure what its maximum range would even be.USAFRet said:So far, the max horizontal distance is 704 meters, and a max altitude of 18 meters.
Perseverance rover, not Curiosity...bit_user said:They probably don't want to risk falling out of communication with the Curiosity rover. Also, as Ingenuity has a limited battery capacity, I'm not sure what its maximum range would even be.
So far, the max flying time is a bit under 3 mins.
Range is associated with payload, speed, batt capacity, altitude.
Everything is a tradeoff.
If you've ever flown a little quadrotor here on the mother planet, you'd know what I mean.
But this whole thing is insanely cool. Flying a little helicopter on Mars...