Flying, rolling robot might make a great Titan explorer

January 7, 2013 by Jason Major, Universe Today
Flying, rolling robot might make a great Titan explorer

Ever since the Huygens probe landed on Titan back in January 2005, sending us our first tantalizing and oh-so-brief glimpses of the moon's murky, pebbly surface, researchers have been dreaming up ways to explore further… after all, what's more intriguing than a world in our own Solar System that's basically a miniature version of an early Earth (even if it's quite a few orders of magnitude chillier?)

Many concepts have been suggested as to the best way to explore Titan, from Mars-style rovers to boats that would sail its seas to powered … and even hot-air balloons have been put on the table. Each of these have their own specific benefits, specially suited to the many environments that are found on Titan, but what if you could have two-in-one; what if you could, say, rove and fly?

That's what this little robot can do.

Designed by Arash Kalantari and Matthew Spenko at the Robotics Lab at Illinois Institute of Technology, this rolling birdcage is actually a quadrotor flying craft that's wrapped in a protective framework, allowing it to move freely along the ground and then take off when needed, maneuvering around obstacles easily.

Color view of Titan’s surface, captured by the Huygens probe after landing in January 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona

A design like this, fitted with and given adequate power supply, might make a fantastic for Titan, where the atmosphere is thick and the terrain may range from rough and rocky to sandy and slushy. (And what safer way to ford a freezing-cold Titanic stream than fly over it?)

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
The HyTAQ (Hybrid Terrestrial and Aerial Quadrotor) robot developed at Illinois Institute of Technology. Credit: IIT

Also, the robot's cage design may make it better suited to travel across the frozen crust of Titan's flood plains, which have been found to have a consistency like damp sand with a layer of frozen snow on top. Where wheels could break through and get permanently stuck (a la Spirit) a rolling cage might remain on top. And if it does break through… well, fire up the engines and take off.

The robot (as it's designed now) is also very energy-efficient, compared to quadrotors that only fly.

"During terrestrial locomotion, the robot only needs to overcome rolling resistance and consumes much less energy compared to the aerial mode," the IIT website notes. "This solves one of the most vexing problems of quadrotors and rotorcraft in general—their short operation time. Experimental results show that the hybrid robot can travel a distance 4 times greater and operate almost 6 times longer than an aerial only system."

Of course this is all just excited speculation at this point. No NASA or ESA contracts have been awarded to IIT to build the next explorer, and who knows if the idea is on anyone else's plate. But innovations like this, from schools and the private sector, are just the sorts of exciting things that set imaginations rolling (and flying!)

Explore further: Cassini Getting the Lowdown on Titan This Weekend

Related Stories

Cassini Getting the Lowdown on Titan This Weekend

June 18, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Cassini spacecraft will take its lowest dip through the hazy atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan in the early morning of June 21 UTC, which is the evening of June 20 Pacific time. This weekend's flyby, ...

Evaluating the energy balance of Saturn's moon Titan

January 2, 2012

To understand the weather and climate on Earth as well as on other planets and their moons, scientists need to know the global energy balance, the balance between energy coming in from solar radiation and thermal energy radiated ...

Putting an airplane on a distant moon

January 25, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- In addition to its rivers, oceans, mountains, sand dunes and winds, Saturn’s moon Titan may someday share another similarity with Earth: airplanes.

Scientist turn focus to Titan

September 28, 2012

(Phys.org)—Humanity has landed a rover on Mars. Now, say scientists, it's time to land a boat on Titan. This outlandish scenario could become reality, according to engineers presenting their proposals at the European Planetary ...

Bouncing on Titan: How Huygens landed

October 11, 2012

(Phys.org)—ESA's Huygens probe bounced, slid and wobbled its way to rest in the 10 seconds after touching down on Saturn's moon, Titan, in January 2005, a new analysis reveals. The findings provide novel insight into the ...

Recommended for you

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

Prawn Nebula: Cosmic recycling

September 2, 2015

Dominating this image is part of the nebula Gum 56, illuminated by the hot bright young stars that were born within it. For millions of years stars have been created out of the gas in this nebula, material which is later ...

Image: Hubble sees a youthful cluster

August 31, 2015

Shown here in a new image taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on board the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is the globular cluster NGC 1783. This is one of the biggest globular clusters in the Large Magellanic ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

evolution3
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 07, 2013
That thing looks awesome. The one thing I ask myself is: how much of experimental and analytical equipment can it carry and still fly in Titans atmosphere?
supersubie
3.5 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2013
Really nice design but as evolution3 said how much could this be scaled up to accomodate equipment to experiment with! As it is quite small perhaps they could send a swarm of them all with varying equipment on board and conduct a range of experiments with each seperate robot!
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jan 08, 2013
Titan would be well suited for a copter.
Gravity is 0.14g, but atmospheric density is 1.5 Earth norm at sea level.
So a copter there would be many times as effective/could carry many times the mass that it could on Earth (somewhere between 7 and 10 times more).

The downside is that flight times for copters are short and the signal roundtrip time is long (2-3 hours depending on relative position of Saturn and Earth). So it's hard to do what is done for the Curiosity rover: observe, plan, take a minute step, observe, etc.

With this thing you would have to plan - and then just let it go on its own for a bit. Hoping that it didn't encounter anything unexpcted along the way.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.