NASA develops an all-terrain snake robot to explore other worlds

  • JPL team members test a snake robot called EELS at a ski resort in the mountains of southern California

NASA engineers are developing a snake-shaped robot designed to traverse extreme terrain on missions to other worlds.

Called EELS (short for Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor), the self-propelled autonomous robot was inspired by a desire to search for signs of life in the ocean that lurks beneath the icy crust of the Saturnian moon Enceladus. descend through narrow vents on the surface that spew geysers into space.

Although testing and development continues, designing for such a challenging destination has 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, including undulating sand and ice, cliff faces, craters too steep for rovers, subterranean lava tubes, and maze-like spaces within. of the glaciers.

“It has the ability to go places 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, EELS project manager at JPL, said in a statement.

“When you go places where you don’t know what you’ll find, you want to send a versatile, risk-aware robot that is prepared for uncertainty and can make decisions for itself.”

The project team started building the first prototype in 2019 and has been conducting continuous reviews.

Since last year, they have been conducting monthly field tests and refining both the hardware and software that allows EELS to work autonomously.

In its current form, called EELS 1.0, the robot weighs around 100 kilograms and is 4 meters long.

It is made up of 10 identical segments that rotate, using screw threads for propulsion, traction, and grip.

The team has been testing a variety of threads: white 20-centimeter-diameter 3D-printed plastic for testing on looser ground, and narrower, sharper black metal for ice.

The robot has been put to the test in sandy, snowy and icy environments, from JPL’s Mars Yard to a ‘robot playground’ set up at a ski resort in the snowy mountains of Southern California, even on an ice rink. home cover.

“We have a different robot development philosophy than traditional space missions, with lots of rapid test-and-fix cycles,” said Hiro Ono, EELS principal investigator at JPL.

“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 to boldly go where no robot has gone before.

We have to write our own. That’s what we’re doing now.”