Why it matters: CalTech recently unveiled an all-terrain vehicle called the M4, short for Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot. The nickname comes from the vehicle’s unique ability to use AI to analyze the surrounding terrain and then convert it into configurations based on the obstacles in its path.
On Thursday, CalTech announced that M4 is now a candidate to become NASA’s next Mars rover. The vehicle, powered by Nvidia’s Jetson edge AI and robotics platform, can decide whether to drive like a car, fly like a drone, or walk and crawl like an animal depending on the conditions. According to the researchers, who started development in 2020, M4 has eight different modes of locomotion.
“The number of functions we wanted to perform grew,” Mory Gharib, professor of aeronautics and bio-inspired engineering, recalled in today’s press release. “When we proposed it to our design team, everyone said ‘no’ at first.”
Eventually, the design team stepped in and completed a limited PoC (Proof of Concept) prototype in June of this year. The idea is relatively simple: use independent appendages to perform multiple mobility tasks. The robot rolls on four wheels over smooth to slightly uneven terrain. If things get too rough, the M4 can crawl using its wheels for feet and even stand on two wheels if needed. If it encounters an obstacle it can neither drive nor walk over, it aligns its wheels horizontally and flies like a quad drone.
It also has various other charities. For example, he can crouch low to roll under an obstacle or climb a steep incline on his rear wheels, while the front wheels act as propellers, giving him extra power as he climbs the hill.
Since publication Professor Gharib says that as part of their research in Nature Communications, the team was “inundated” with various suggested uses for the bot. However, it was NASA and JPL that provided CalTech with the second round of funding for the M4. So it’s no surprise that NASA is currently conducting transformation and landing tests for the potential Mars rover.
“We’re a little dazed at how it’s suddenly garnered so much attention,” Gharib said. “Different organizations want to do different things and they come to us. At NASA we are being tested for transformation during landing.”
Gharib and his team envision ground-based capabilities such as search and rescue and firefighting. Several fire departments in the Los Angeles area have expressed interest in using the autonomous drone. The M4 is also great for parcel shipping. This feature would likely require a significant design change, but is within reasonable limits.
In fact, CalTech is working on a significantly larger design that can handle heavier payloads, fly further, and have longer flight times. The current model can only go 40 mph for 30 minutes on a charge, which is fine for testing. However, this and its size limit its use for many other purposes, most notably missions to Mars. The team had no indication of how long it would take to develop a larger, more robust model.