Caltech Aims All Terrain M4 Morphobot at NASA Mars Mission

University unveils robot NVIDIA Jetson-powered robot for search-and-rescue, delivery, and extraterrestrial missions.


Caltech's M4 Morphobot can move in multiple ways, making it useful in dynamic environments.
Caltech, Northeastern University, and NASA Jet Propulsion Lab have developed the Multi-Modality Mobility Morphobot to fly, drive, walk, and combine motions for dynamic travel.

In 2020, Mory Gharib and Alireza Ramezani, two California Institute of Technology researchers, conceptualized a transforming robot. Caltech today announced the Multi-Modality Mobility Morphobot, or M4, which now could be part of future NASA Mars Rover missions.

The M4 Morphobot is powered by the NVIDIA Jetson platform for artificial intelligence at the edge and robotics. The institute called the robot the M4 because it can fly, drive, walk, and do eight permutations of motion through a combination of its skills.

“It grew in the number of functions that we wanted to do,” said Gharib, a professor of aeronautics and bioinspired engineering at Caltech, in a blog post. “When we proposed it to our design team, at first, they all said, ‘No.’”

NASA JPL continues development

Caltech funded the initial research. NASA and its Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) funded the next phase and brought in Ramezani, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, as a faculty researcher at JPL last summer to develop it further.

The team currently includes Gharib and Ramezani, as well as Eric Sihite, a postdoctoral scholar research associate in aerospace at Caltech; Arash Kalantari from JPL; and Reza Nemovi, a design engineer at Caltech's Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST).

Its M42 version is now under development at NASA as a Mars Rover candidate. The U.S. Department of Transportation has also expressed interest, Gharib said.

“At NASA, we’re being tested right now for transforming while landing,” he said.

And since recently releasing a paper on it in Nature Communications, Gharib said he has been inundated with proposals.

“We’re kind of dizzy about how it suddenly got so much attention,” he said. “Different organizations want to do different things and are coming to approach us.”

M4 has potential for firefighting, search-and-rescue operations

The Caltech team behind the paper said the M4 is designed for diverse mission requirements in search and rescue, among other areas. For example, when it’s not feasible to roll or walk into areas such as fire zones, the robot can fly and do reconnaissance to assess situations using its cameras and sensors.

According to Gharib, multiple fire departments in the Los Angeles area have contacted Gharib with interest in the M4.

“For first responders, this is huge because you need to land in a safe area and then drive into the situation,” he said.

M4 search and rescue

M4 could help in search-and-rescue operations. Click on image to enlarge. Source: Caltech

Drone deliveries as 'low-hanging fruit'

Caltech’s team said it is also working to solve complications with drone deliveries using the M4. Drone deliveries are the “low-hanging fruit” for this robot, according to Gharib.

Traditional drones for deliveries are problematic because nobody wants drones landing near their home or business for safety reasons, he said. The M4 can land somewhere isolated from people and then drive to finish deliveries, making it a safer option, he added.

The M4 can also fly into areas where truck deliveries might have a difficult time getting into or can’t offer delivery service at all, noted Gharib.

“There are a lot of places where truck deliveries can’t go,” he said.

Right now, the M4 is capable of traveling as fast as 40 mph, and its battery can last up to 30 minutes on a charge. But Caltech team is working to design larger drones with longer flight times, bigger payloads and increased travel distances. “The sky’s the limit,” it said.

The Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot shows off a few of its skills on Caltech's campus.

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Caltech's M4 Morphobot can move in multiple ways, making it useful in dynamic environments.

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