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Little PUFFER the robot will soon be part of NASA’s space exploration arsenal, traveling cosmic terrains like Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa. The PUFFER project is part of a collaboration with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), academics at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Distant Focus Corporation in Champaign, Illinois.

Since NASA usually appreciates a good acronym, PUFFER is short for Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robots. The design in simple, low-cost, lightweight, and embraces the flexibility of origami. The entire device can collapse and fold into a compact, phone-sized gadget, which allows the robot to thrive in the extreme conditions of space.

Once the robot is in its condensed form, it can be added to a parent spacecraft such as a Mars rover. Potentially, a larger NASA vehicle could carry multiple PUFFER-like robots in its frame to increase the space-exploration data.

“The JPL team’s partnership with Distant Focus Corporation will develop a unique folded optic microscope for use on the PUFFER rovers,” according to the robot’s fact sheet. “A folded optic microscope uses a series of reflective mirrors, as opposed to refractive lenses, that allows the instrument to be packed into a very thin profile. The thin profile then enables the microscope to be readily integrated into PUFFER’s flat folding structure. Distant Focus Corporation will design and fabricate a batch of folded optic microscopes and deliver these to JPL for integration and field testing at the end of the PUFFER development effort.”

Currently, PUFFER has entered its testing phase, where prototypes traverse Mars-like landscapes. Results show that the robot can climb slopes at 45-degree angles and survive 3-meter high falls within the simulated gravity conditions on Mars.

In the near future, the team hopes to continue testing PUFFER’s capabilities at the Mars-analogue sites in the Mojave Desert.

Below, you can watch one of PUFFER’s field tests, showcasing its obstacle-avoidance potential. 

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