"Biomorphic explorers" are a class of proposed small robots that would be equipped with microsensors and would feature animallike adaptability and mobility. These robots would capture key features, a specific design or function found in nature, taking advantage of general animal mechanical designs and neural functions that have evolved to enable animals to move through various environments. These robots are conceived for use in remote, hostile, and/or inaccessible terrestrial and other planetary environments, where they would be used to perform such diverse functions as acquisition of scientific data, law-enforcement surveillance, or diagnosis for precise, minimally invasive medical treatment. Depending on the specific environment to be explored, a biomorphic explorer might be designed to crawl, hop, slither, burrow, swim, or fly.

The Development of Biomorphic Explorers would be consistent with a current trend away from conventional, limited-mobility robots toward highly mobile, adaptive robots based partly on biological concepts.

The biomorphic-explorer concept is a generalization and encompasses the nanorover concept reported in "Tetherless, Optically Controlled Nanorovers" (NPO-19606), NASA Tech Briefs, Vol. 21, No. 3 (March 1997), page 92. Like nanorovers, biomorphic explorers would exploit the emerging technology of microelectromechanical structures. Biomorphic explorers would be enabled by a unique combination of direct-driven, flexible, shape-reconfigurable advanced actuators and their adaptive control by fault-tolerant biomorphic algorithms. Typically, these actuators would consist largely of composites of thin piezoceramic films on strong polymeric substrates and/or combinations of shape-memory-alloy actuators. The actuators would generate forces and/or displacements in response to light or to applied voltage; that is, they could be controlled photonically or electronically. The desired combinations of mobility and adaptability, along with fault tolerance and a limited capability for "learning," would be achieved by integrating the actuators with very-large-scale integrated (VLSI) circuits that would implement neural-networks utilizing genetic algorithms.

Relative to conventional remote-sensing robotic vehicles, biomorphic explorers would be simple, inexpensive, and easy to fabricate; this raises the possibility of mass production of expendable biomorphic explorers that could be deployed in large numbers, possibly acting cooperatively under central control or distributed control. Such deployment would of course, resemble the behavior of colonies of insects or other groups of small social animals engaged in cooperative activity.

This work was done by Sarita Thakoor and Adrian Stoica of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to

Technology Reporting Office
JPL
Mail Stop 122-116
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, CA 91109
(818) 354-2240

Refer to NPO-20142


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 1998 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from the archives here.