European Space Agency Wants to Send Robot Snakes to Mars

The Mars rovers can't go everywhere, so let's give them some deployable robosnakes

2 min read
European Space Agency Wants to Send Robot Snakes to Mars

The Mars rovers are designed for off-roading, mostly because the entirety of Mars is off-road. But, they're driven very conservatively, since if they ever do get stuck, well... Yeah, that's kind of the end of them. Problem is, it's hard to explore (or take samples) when you can't get into all of those interesting nooks and crannies, and one solution that the European Space Agency is exploring is to just send two robots: a traditional rover, and a deployable tethered snake.

The concept here is that you'd have a wheeled rover capable of moving efficiently over long distances, with a snake robot attached to it somehow. The "somehow" part is still in the works, but there are some interesting options:

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. The researchers envisage using the rover to navigate over large distances, after which the snake robot can detach itself and crawl into tight, inaccessible areas. A cable will connect the robot to the vehicle. The cable will supply power and tractive power, i.e. it can be winched back to the rover. Communication between the pair will be facilitated via signals transmitted down the cable.

Another scenario illustrating how the vehicle and the snake robot can work together is for the robot to be located underneath or on top of the rover. That would require a hoisting mechanism to pick up the robot, lift it up and connect it to the rover.

A feasibility study is being conducted by SINTEF ICT in Norway, and the snake robot that they're using appears to be this one, called Wheeko:

This video is several years old, but in any case, this isn't the robot snake that will be going to Mars. The current study is just trying to see if the basic concept will work, and if everything looks good, a proposal for a more specific and detailed study will be submitted by the end of the year.


Illustration: SINTEF ICT

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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