Inventors of Transformers toys help design Japanese lunar robot

Inventors of Transformers toys help design Japanese lunar robot

Jan. 26, 2024
The SORA-Q was jointly developed by Takara TOMY, a toy company; the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; Sony Group; and Doshisha University.

It’s not often that I get to shine a light on a story that combines cutting-edge robotics, space travel, and 1980s toys. Then again, it’s not often that a toy company best known for producing Transformers, Beyblade, and Zoids partners with an aerospace agency to push the boundaries of robotic design with an invention that can morph like its popular action figures. I am speaking, of course, about the SORA-Q lunar robot.

The Lunar Excursion Vehicle 2 (LEV-2) robot, which earned the nickname SORA-Q, was jointly developed by Takara TOMY, a toy company; JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; Sony Group; and Doshisha University, located in Kyoto, Japan. The robot was mounted onto the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), which made contact on the moon’s surface last week. Although communication was established with SLIM after landing, the device’s solar cells were unable to generate power. Despite this setback, SORA-Q and its partner robot, Lunar Excursion Vehicle (LEV-1), were deployed, were able to navigate the moon’s surface, and were able to communicate with each other.

Matt Alt in a recent article for The New Yorker wrote: “With its honeycombed aluminum-alloy shell, SORA-Q looks something like a metallic Wiffle ball and takes its name from sora, which means “sky” in Japanese; the “Q” is a homonym for the Japanese word meaning “sphere.” As the dust settles, SORA-Q will unfold like a Transformer: the sphere will split in half, exposing a pair of cameras and dividing its two hemispheres into wheels. In the case of M1, mission controllers will remotely instruct their SORA-Q to turn toward the main lunar lander and transmit images back to Earth. (One long-standing challenge of landing missions is that they generally can’t take selfies from a distance, so scientists can’t visually diagnose problems—and images of the landing can’t go viral.)”

According to a recent NPR article written by Bill Chappell, “In [SORA-Q’s] initial spherical form, it has a diameter of around 8 centimeters — making it slightly larger than a baseball. It's one of two LEVs the lander will eject when it's about two meters above the ground. After hitting the moon's regolith, SORA-Q was built to transform, springing its two halves apart into independently controlled wheels. In this form, a wishbone-like tail juts from its rear, to help keep it stable. The robot also pops a camera module up from its core.”

In a recent quote, Hirano Faichi, an associate senior researcher for the Space Exploration Innovation Hub Center who worked on the project, said, "To satisfy the limited size of the vehicle to be mound on SLIM, we had to downsize LEV-2. However, downsizing causes a decrease in running performance. In order to deal with this problem, we designed the vehicle to be a spherical object with expandable wheels and a stabilizer using the transforming technologies for toys. Moreover, we adopted the robust and safe design technology for children's toys, which reduced the number of components used in the vehicle as much as possible and increased its reliability."

In a press release, TOMY Company writes that it “sincerely hopes that SORA-Q will help children become more interested in the natural sciences and discover the excitement of space.”

The Lighter Side of Manufacturing

Created by the editors of Plant Services and New Equipment Digest, The Lighter Side of Manufacturing is a feel-good blog that showcases how advances in science, math, engineering, and technology are making our world more whimsical. Here’s another post that is guaranteed to brighten your day.

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About the Author

Alexis Gajewski | Senior Content Strategist

Alexis Gajewski has over 15 years of experience in the maintenance, reliability, operations, and manufacturing space. She joined Plant Services in 2008 and works to bring readers the news, insight, and information they need to make the right decisions for their plants. Alexis also authors “The Lighter Side of Manufacturing,” a blog that highlights the fun and innovative advances in the industrial sector. 

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