A small hopping robot with froglike abilities that moves
by a combination of rolls and hops to its desired destination
may someday hop a ride to an asteroid and leap its way to
other planets in the search for water.

The frogbot, featured as the “robot of the month” in the
Robot Watch news section of Discover magazine’s December
issue, weighs in at 1.3 kilograms (3 pounds) and is powered by
a single motor. It is equipped with a camera, solar panels,
sensors and onboard computer that executes commands
autonomously, making the robot ideally suitable for
exploration of distant planets, comets and asteroids.

Under development jointly by NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology, both in
Pasadena, Calif., the frogbot can steer and right itself.

“Hopping is a more efficient form of transportation in
low-gravity environments,” said Dr. Paolo Fiorini, an engineer
in the robotics group at JPL. “Our hopping robot performs
much like a frog, except that it only has one leg and no
tongue. It has a spring between its knees that makes it bend
its legs and hop. When the spring releases, the frogbot takes
a 1.8-meter (6-foot) hop on Earth, which could become a 6-
meter (20-foot) leap under low-gravity conditions on planets
like Mars, depending on terrain.”

Engineers believe that in low-gravity environments, such
as small planets, and in micro-gravity environments, such as
asteroids, wheels successfully used on rovers may not be the
most efficient form of locomotion. In laboratory experiments,
slithering, rolling and hopping have been shown to be
alternative methods of propulsion.

In the future, NASA envisions missions involving dozens
of small robotic vehicles. “To be effective, a small
exploratory robot vehicle must frequently go over obstacles
that are many times its body size,” said Joel Burdick, the
Caltech co-inventor of the robot. “Hopping or leaping motions
are some of the few effective ways for small vehicles to
overcome such relatively large obstacles.”

“Our goal was to come up with a locomotion method and
design that would use a minimal number of instruments and that
would be small, compact, lightweight and still be able to
perform useful scientific study,” said Dr. Neville Marzwell,
head of the Advanced Projects Office at JPL. Researchers at
Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., have also
developed a hopping device, with more limited maneuverability.

The frogbot has shown better mobility than rovers on
certain terrain. It can be developed to reach canyon walls
and other remote areas, be manufactured at a lower cost and
multiple numbers of the device can be released onto a planet’s
surface to cover large distances and communicate with each
other. One frogbot could be lost without hindering the whole

The hopping robot technology will be ready in about three
to five years and could help scientists capture images and
collect ground samples. One of the major challenges facing
engineers is precision navigation necessary to control the
hopping robot. Engineers are also developing a hopper that
adheres and climbs vertical walls and are testing prototypes
on different ground terrains.

Pictures are available at http://technology.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/robotics/robot_index.html .

The Advanced Projects Office of Space Flight at NASA
Headquarters is the primary source of funds for this work,
which was also sponsored by a National Science Foundation
grant through the Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering
at Caltech. Managed for NASA by Caltech, JPL is the lead U.S.
center for robotic exploration of the solar system.


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