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JPL Designing Spiny-Fingered Grippers for Robotic Drilling on Asteroids

Anchors made of microspines can stick robots to asteroids, comets, and rocks on Mars

2 min read
JPL Designing Spiny-Fingered Grippers for Robotic Drilling on Asteroids

NASA JPL's Lemur IIB robot hanging from a microspine anchor. Image: NASA/JPL

We’re no strangers to innovative climbing robot research around here, but we don’t often get to see what happens when some of this technology makes that very difficult jump from laboratory curiosity to potential application. Aaron Parness was at Stanford working on climbing robots like Stickybot and Spinybot, and he’s brought Spinybot’s legacy to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where they’re working on a microspine adhesion system for sticking robot probes to asteroids.

Back in 2007, the European Space Agency launched the spacecraft Rosetta, a mission to a comet that will arrive in 2014. Rosetta includes a lander that will use a harpoon to stick itself to the surface of the comet, which (while pretty cool) isn’t necessarily an ideal solution, since harpoons aren’t removable. Ideally, you want some system that can reliably anchor a robot to an uneven surface while simultaneously providing enough downforce in microgravity to allow for sample collection, and this is where the microspines come in.

JPL’s microspine anchors are capable of quickly attaching and detaching from a variety of surface types using an actuator with just one degree of freedom. The anchor provides enough force (on surfaces ranging from vertical to inverted) for a percussion drill operating though the anchor to take core samples, and it’s robust enough to survive over a hundred anchoring sequences with a structure that’s designed to be space-durable. Check it out:

Next, JPL will be refining an ankle and foot equipped with this same spine system, the goal being to get one of their limbed robots (Lemur IIB) to be able to climb around vertical and inverted rocky surfaces. This would potentially be ideal for the exploration of asteroids and comets, or for crawling around the walls and ceilings of lava tubes on (say) Mars to collect mineral samples. There’s also talk of somehow applying this system to astronauts, probably for microgravity anchoring, but I can’t help fantasizing about having some microspine gloves and shoes that let me climb straight up the sides of buildings. ‘Course, that’s probably being worked on too, just not in a way that anyone’s allowed to tell us about.

“Demonstrations of Gravity-Independent Mobility and Drilling on Natural Rock Using Microspines,” by Aaron Parness, Matthew Frost, Jonathan P. King, and Nitish Thatte from JPL, Ohio State University, and Rutgers University, was presented yesterday at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in St. Paul, Minn.

[ JPL Robotics Research ]

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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