NASA gets snake robot off the ground

By Eric Smalley, Technology Research News

A team of researchers at NASA is betting that snakes are a better model than dune buggies for building robots that can explore the surfaces of planets.

NASA's Snakebot project added sensors and controllers to a multisegment robot developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

The NASA researchers are also working on a frame for the Snakebot that features contact-sensing ribs. The sensors will allow the robot to gauge the terrain as it moves.

"If [a] rib is touched anywhere around its perimeter we can figure out where it's being touched and how hard," said Gary Haith, a computer scientist and lead engineer on the project.

The researchers are also adding controllers, or small computers, to each segment so they can move in response to sensor information without having to wait for instructions from the robot's main computer.

"That's like a reflex," Haith said. "We're basically looking at making [the robot] semiautonomous so you can say stuff like ‘Go to that rock 10 meters away.’ I want to have the snake automatically figure out what kind of surface it's on and transition to the gait that's most appropriate."

The Snakebot has several advantages over the dune buggy-style rovers currently used by NASA to explore the surface of Mars, said Haith.

"[The Snakebot] is very robust. If one segment [fails] it just means your robot is a little more stiff," he said. The Snakebot is also more stable on uneven terrain and on steep grades, he added.

In addition, the Snakebot can serve three functions: it can move, it can stand upright to gain a better view, and it can fix itself to a surface at one end and manipulate objects with its other end, said Haith.

"So instead of having to send up a rover that has a mast and an arm, you can basically send up one thing that can do all three [functions]," he said.

The Snakebot could be ready for missions in five to ten years, Haith said. The project is funded by NASA.

Timeline:   5-10 years
Funding:   Government
TRN Categories:   Robotics
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:   Photos


October 11, 2000

Page One

Quantum dot logic advances

Researchers peer into quantum dots

Flexible displays come into view

NASA gets snake robot off the ground

Vibrations make electrons jump


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