Windbot Could Float Through the Clouds of Jupiter

A robot powered by turbulence might be the best way to explore gas giants

2 min read
Windbot Could Float Through the Clouds of Jupiter
An artist’s rendering of a windbot floating through the turbulent skies of Jupiter. The concept in the image is portrayed as a polyhedron with sections that spin to absorb wind energy and create lift, but NASA researchers will explore other designs.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sending a robotic lander to Jupiter is probably not a good idea. There’s a rocky core down there somewhere, encased by metallic hydrogen and covered by an ocean of supercritical hydrogen, so technically, there is somewhere to land. But even if your lander made it all the way down there (which it probably wouldn’t for a variety of reasons), you’d be squished and fried and not even able to see anything while it was happening.

So let’s not do that.

Instead of thinking of Jupiter as totally inhospitable, let’s take a page from this Venus playbook, and aim for exploration of the atmosphere instead, with a robot that floats in the clouds and harvests energy from the wind.

WindBots, or “persistent in-situ science explorers for gas giants,” is a conceptual project that just got a US $100,000 grant from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program to make itself slightly less conceptual. The general idea is to find a way to make atmospheric exploration possible for gas giants, where keeping a robot alive for any appreciable amount of time is a challenge. 

For atmospheric explorers, there are few options for power, because solar is impractical on a rotating planet, and a radioisotope thermal generator is impractical on a robot that’s supposed to be floating. In order to harvest energy from an atmosphere, you need an energy gradient: that is, energy conditions that change over time. Turbulence fits the bill nicely, and that’s what the NASA researchers are hoping they can find on Jupiter. From the look of the clouds there, it seems like a safe bet.

The robot itself is still just as conceptual as the image above would suggest, but the notable feature (that you can’t really see in the image) are the rotors on the faces of the robot that can spin to create lift or change the robot’s direction. Inside, besides a bunch of fancy science instruments, there’d likely be some mechanism to harvest energy from turbulent motion, kind of like what you can find in one of those self-winding wristwatches.

So what’s next?

The JPL team is starting out by characterizing winds among the clouds of Jupiter to understand what kinds of places might be best for sending a windbot and to determine some of the technical requirements for its design. “There are lots of things we don't know,” [Adrian Stoica, principal investigator for the windbots study at JPL] said. “Does a windbot need to be 10 meters in diameter or 100? How much lift do we need from the winds in order to keep a windbot aloft?”

First of all, if the question is 10 meters or 100 meters, the answer is obviously 100 meters, because awesome. Some other things that need solving include sensing and aerodynamic modeling, which would best be accomplished by the construction of a prototype. We can’t wait to see it.

Via [ NASA ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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