NASA is making Transformers-style robots for a 2026 mission to Titan

The flying, amphibious robots will be able to swim through Titan’s methane lakes

The terrain on Titan, with its methane-filled lakes, already resembles a scene out of a sci-fi horror film. And now, NASA plans on sending shape-shifting amphibian robots that look like they’d be at home in Michael Bay’s Transformers universe, to explore the gaseous reservoirs on Saturn’s largest moon.

A 3D-printed prototype of rolling, flying, floating, and swimming mini-robots — which come together to form one regular-sized bot — is currently being tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (See it in the video above). The agency announced the news this week.

NASA hopes to send these shape-shifters to rough, extraterrestrial surfaces such as Titan, swimming through its toxic lakes, flying over its methane waterfalls, and possibly exploring caves or icy volcanoes that the moon may have.

NASA visualizes the final version as a futuristic-looking, flying sphere that comes apart to perform different tasks.

An illustration of the future of the robotic prototypes, visualizing shapeshifters that come apart, swim underwater or fly over waterfalls.
An illustration of the future of the robotic prototypes, visualizing shapeshifters that come apart, swim underwater or fly over waterfalls.

But for now, back on JPL’s sandy yard, the robot is more of a small drone, attached to some ill-fitting wheels at its sides. The current prototype comes apart, and each of its sides has attached propellers that launch it up in the sky for aerial exploration.

The prototypes are part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts, which funds futuristic, sci-fi sounding concepts and helps turn them into reality.

The team is hoping to build a group of 12 robots that can explore both underwater terrains, and deep, rocky caves. The robots will each have their own propellor, and can separate from each other to do a little independent exploration, or come together as a sphere and roll on flat surfaces in order to conserve energy. They could also go spelunking, where they form a daisy chain to maintain contact with the surface.

See also: On Titan, Dragonfly will peer at the “chemistry that led to life” on Earth

“We have very limited information about the composition of the surface. Rocky terrain, methane lakes, cryovolcanoes - we potentially have all of these, but we don’t know for certain,” JPL Principal Investigator Ali Agha said in a statement. “So we thought about how to create a system that is versatile and capable of traversing different types of terrain but also compact enough to launch on a rocket.”

And they will have plenty of time to do so, with the next mission to Titan scheduled for the year 2026. The mission, named Dragonfly, to examine and bring samples from the icy moon back to Earth.

Media via NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marilynn Flynn, NASA