NASA’s snake robot

NASA engineers are at it again. A new project is designed to cross extreme terrain on missions destined for other worlds. It is the NASA snake robot.

Its name is EELS (Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor). What would be the mission of the autonomous self-propelled robot? To search for signs of life in the ocean beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It could descend through narrow vents on the surface that spew geysers into space.

NASA's snake robot is already in its testing stage.
NASA’s snake robot is already in its testing stage.

All-terrain vehicle

Designing for such a challenging destination resulted in a highly adaptable robot. EELS could choose a safe course through a wide variety of terrain on Earth, the Moon, and far beyond. Even undulating sand and ice, cliff walls, or subway lava tubes.

“It has the ability to go places where other robots can’t go. Although some robots are better at one particular type of terrain or another. The idea of EELS is the ability to do it all,” Matthew Robinson said in a statement. He is project manager.

The project team began building the first prototype in 2019. Since last year, they have been conducting monthly field tests. They refined the hardware and software that allows EELS to operate autonomously. NASA’s snake robot weighs about 100 kilograms and is 4 meters long. It is composed of 10 identical segments that rotate, using screw threads for propulsion, traction and grip.

Tests of use

It was put to the test in sandy, snowy and icy environments. Also in ‘robot playground’ created at a ski resort in the snowy mountains of Southern California.

“We have a different robot development philosophy than traditional space missions. There are many rapid test-and-correct cycles,” said Hiro Ono, principal investigator. “There are dozens of textbooks on how to design a four-wheeled vehicle. But there is no textbook on how to design an autonomous snake robot. We have to write our own. That’s what we are doing now.”

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