Inspired by terrestrial biology, the soft and flexible amphibious robot would feature tentacle-like structures that would serve as electrodynamic ‘power scavengers’ to harvest power from locally changing magnetic fields as well as a means of propulsion. This would enable the rover to explore environments – such as that of Jupiter’s gas-giant moon Europa – that would not be possible with robots using conventional power systems.
The marine rover would also be able to electrolyze water and store its constituents – a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gas – in chambers within its limbs. Igniting the gas would expand the chambers causing the rover’s shape to expand and contract, propelling it through fluid.
An artist’s rendering of the soft amphibious robot that could one day explore liquid oceans on other planets and moons.
The outer skin of the robot could be a stretchable electroluminescent display, which could serve to illuminate the local environment and allow underwater imaging. According to team leader Mason Peck, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, "This study will serve as a pathfinder that introduces soft robotics into future rover trades."
The NASA grant received by the Cornell team was awarded through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The program is designed to "nurture visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs — radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts — while engaging America’s innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey."