College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Sky’s the limit? Not for Ph.D. student John Bell


John Bell is literally shooting for the moon as he pursues a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Clemson University.

As part of his studies, Bell conducted research on a robot designed to help explore the moon or Mars. Researchers call it the Pop-up Flat Folding Explorer Robot, or PUFFER.

John Bell (center) works with his Ph.D. advisor, Laura Redmond, and master’s student John Crowder.

“It’s a small, origami-inspired robot that can fold and collapse to reach those hard-to-explore areas,” Bell said. “It would operate autonomously and explore, giving data back to us.”

Researchers would like to drop the robots down pits on the lunar surface to learn more about what is down there, he said.

Bell’s research started with trying to figure out whether the robots could survive the fall and, if not, what adjustments would need to be made. His work has since broadened, and he is now looking at what origami shapes and designs from PUFFER could help future engineers design similar robotic systems.

Bell enrolled at Clemson after receiving his Bachelor of Science in mathematics from North Greenville University. He found that his mathematics background fit well with the civil engineering research he is now conducting.

Bell’s advisor, Laura Redmond, worked four years as a structural engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before joining Clemson in 2018 as an assistant professor.

Bell said that when he signed up for engineering, developing space technology wasn’t on his mind and if it had been, it might have seemed unattainable. But not anymore, now that he has some experience in the field.

“It’s very exciting to be a part of something that could have so much impact,” Bell said. “Space is exciting, and it gives me a lot of motivation to do what I do.”

Bell received a masters’ in civil engineering from Clemson in 2020 and is on course to earn his Ph.D. in August.

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