NASA has chosen its next batch of proposals under its advanced concepts program, including the use of soft-robotic rovers for exploring gas-giant moons, and autonomous robots capable of crawling, hopping, and rolling around the surface of the Moon.
Under Phase I of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, selected participants are given $100,000 to fund a nine-month initial definition and analysis of the proposed concepts. Proposals that pass this initial phase will be granted upwards of $500,000 for two additional years of concept development. The point of the program is to encourage the development of futuristic technologies NASA can use to explore both the Earth and Solar System.
One of the more interesting proposals calls for a soft robotic squid/eel hybrid. The device would be equipped with a short antenna on its back to draw power from changing magnetic fields. The aquatic rover could be used to explore the subsurface oceans on Europa and Enceladus.
Another concept would see the deployment of “atmospheric satellites” above Earth. As a NASA release explains:
[T]wo glider-like unmanned aerial vehicles [would be] connected by an ultra-strong cable at different altitudes that sail without propulsion. The vehicle would use wind shear in the lower stratosphere (approximately 60,000 ft.), similar to a kite surfer, where the upper aircraft provides lift and aerodynamic thrust, and the lower aircraft provides an upwind force to keep it from drifting downwind. If successful, this atmospheric satellite could remain in the stratosphere for years, enabling NASA’s Earth science missions, monitoring capabilities or aircraft navigation at a fraction of the cost of orbital satellite networks.
There’s also the CRICKET program, the use of inexpensive biomimetic robots — like crawlers, hoppers, and small-soccer-ball style buckyball-bots — to explore the moon and other planetary bodies. These machines would be used to search for volatiles such as hydrogen, nitrogen, and water, along with developing hi-res maps.