NASA is developing better gears to make tougher robots

Gears made of metallic glass are ideal for exploring icy worlds.

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Any robot NASA sends to harsh, distant worlds has to be tougher than garden-variety machines. Since every component has to be able to withstand extreme conditions, a team of researchers over at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are looking at the possibility of using bulk metallic glass for their gears. Metallic glass is a metal with glass-like atomic structure -- it has low melting temp and can be blow-molded when heated. Gears made out of the material don't get brittle and won't need lubricants even in extremely cold environments.

NASA says the Curiosity rover has to heat up lubricants every time it wants to move -- metallic glass gears could save precious energy when exploring alien worlds. As JPL Materials Development and Manufacturing Technology Group program manager Peter Dillon explains:

"Being able to operate gears at the low temperature of icy moons, like Europa, is a potential game changer for scientists. Power no longer needs to be siphoned away from the science instruments for heating gearbox lubricant, which preserves precious battery power."

Yet another advantage is that it'll make strain wave gears, which you can see below, much cheaper to mass produce. They're pretty tricky to make, so a tougher material that can cut down costs could be a huge boon to consumer robotics. "This is especially true for humanoid robots, where gears in the joints can be very expensive but are required to prevent shaking arms," said project lead Douglas Hofmann. "The performance at low temperatures for JPL spacecraft and rovers seems to be a happy added benefit."

[Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

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