The NIAC program
To lead the world into the next level of space exploration, NASA sponsors the NASA Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program. Since 2011, the NIAC program has been used to encourage new concepts in aerospace. Anyone with an idea that will improve or advance current space exploration technology can submit a proposal to NASA.
In 2018, the award for applicants reaching the first phase of the program is $125,000. This money is the budget for a nine-month study and initial analysis of the idea. If the idea shows promise, participants can apply for the second phase after the initial nine months.
Shape shifting robots
Right out of the realm of science fiction, one of the 2018 NIAC proposals is a shape-changing robot called Shapeshifter. The vision for Shapeshifter is that it will be a flying, amphibious robot that is capable of traversing land, sea, and air. Composed of smaller robots, Shapeshifter would be able to rearrange to adapt to the environment, for example forming a ball to roll along a surface or a torpedo to travel in a liquid.
Astronaut life support
Off the Earth’s surface, most environments are hostile and deadly to humans. Even on the Earth’s nearest neighbors, the moon and Mars, protective gear is needed to keep astronauts safe. Biobot is a 2018 NIAC project that would lighten the load for astronauts as they explore a new environment on foot. Biobot would be a robot life support system that follows the astronaut along a planetary surface. The astronaut would be tethered to Biobot, reducing the weight of the gear that the astronaut is required to carry.
Other novel ideas
NASA accepted many other ideas in Phase I of the 2018 NIAC program. Other exciting ideas include swarms of flying robots for Mars exploration, a new long-distance space-vessel propulsion concept, and steam-propelled robots for traversing ocean worlds. While many of these ideas sound like they could be from a science fiction movie, NASA’s NIAC program is helping turn science fiction to reality. The research and technology funded by NASA is helping to move space exploration to new levels.