Slippery customer takes off

NASA engineers are developing an intelligent robot snake that may help explore other worlds and perform construction tasks in space.

NASA engineers predict the robotic serpent, which could be ready for space travel in as little as five years, will be able to dig in loose extraterrestrial soil, slither into cracks in a planet’s surface and plan routes over or around obstacles.

‘A snakebot could navigate over rough, steep terrain where a wheeled robotic rover would likely get stuck or topple,’ said Gary Haith, a leading ‘snakebot’ engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Centre.

So far, engineers have been working with a rudimentary snakebot with a main computer-brain connected to the parts of its segmented body by a wire, telling the small motors in each segment what to do.

Eventually, NASA scientists hope to build a model with a synthetic skin to protect its working parts, and with a main computer-brain to enable it to perform construction tasks in space.

So far, the robotic serpents can ‘inchworm’ ahead, flip themselves backward over low obstacles, coil themselves and side-wind, said Haith.

‘A snakebot is not as good at some jobs as other robots, but you get a lot more robot for the weight and the money,’ he said. ‘The problem is it’s hard to tell the snakebot what to do. It is a complex robot that must operate independently, possibly far from Earth. Work on our second snakebot is aimed at making it capable of independent behaviour.’

The next generation of snakebots would let sensors in various parts of the snakebot ‘decide’ what to do, said Haith.

These snakebots will have a main computer that will tell small computers in each segment what to do in a higher, planning sense. The tiny computers in the segments could then provide ‘reflexes’ that take care of simple, but important jobs. According to NASA engineers, the snakebot can save spacecraft weight because its design enables the robot to do many tasks without much extra equipment.

Other benefits of the snakebot include its ability to crawl off a spacecraft lander without a ramp, and its ability to function in hostile environments, even if one joint freezes.

On the web at: www.arc.nasa.gov/ic/snakebot/