Researchers explore use of robot snakes on Mars missions

Robotic snakes could be sent to Mars to provide greater mobility and manoeuvrability than traditional rovers, according to a group of Norwegian researchers.

A team from the SINTEF research institute in Trondheim is studying how such robots could be used to gather soil samples from hard-to-reach places on other planets, as part of a project for the European Space Agency (ESA).

One idea is to use a conventional rover such as Curiosity, which has been exploring the Red Planet since August last year, to carry the robot snake over large distances and then deploy it to places the rover can’t access.

‘Manoeuvrability is a challenge,’ said Pål Liljebäck, one of the researchers on th Serpentine Robots for Planetary Exploration (SERPEX) project, in a statement.

‘The [NASA] Spirit rover was lost after it became stuck in the sand on Mars. The vehicles just cannot get to many of the places from which samples have to be taken.’

Robotic snakes are already used to access difficult locations on Earth, for example to inspect the inside of nuclear reactors and in search and rescue missions.

SINTEF researchers Pål Liljebäck, Aksel Transeth (in front )and Knut Robert Fossum, CIRiS are playing with Wheeko the snake robot.

A rover would be able to provide a robotic snake with a power source and a means of communication. ‘If the robot had to use its own batteries, it would run out of power and we would lose it,’ said researcher Aksel Transeth.

He said the team was looking at several ways that a rover and a robot could work together. ‘One option is to make the robot into one of the vehicle’s arms, with the ability to disconnect and reconnect itself, so that it can be lowered to the ground, where it can crawl about independently.’

Liljebäck added: ‘The connection between the robot and the rover also means that the snake robot will be able to assist the vehicle if the latter gets stuck.

The researchers, who are working with CIRiS (Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space) and NSC (the Norwegian Space Centre), hope that the feasibility study will lead to an ESA-led development process for extra-terrestrial snake robots.