Could robotic snakes become the next big tool for space agencies exploring Mars?
Norway’s SINTEF Research Institute is currently hard at work on designing a robot to explore the surface of Mars, one modeled on the snake’s ability to traverse nearly any obstacle. Researchers believe that a robotic snake could be an excellent tool to study the Red Planet, and the European Space Agency seems to agree. SINTEF just received 500,000 NOK (approximately $85,000) from the ESA to make a robotic snake a reality.
Rather than replace the current Mars rover, however, researchers at SINTEF say they’re looking for a way for the two probes to work together and advance Martian research hand in tail.
"We are looking at several alternatives to enable a rover and a robot to work together. Since the rover has a powerful energy source, it can provide the snake robot with power through a cable extending between the rover and the robot. If the robot had to use its own batteries, it would run out of power and we would lose it," senior research scientist Aksel Transeth explains in a press release.
"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,” Transeth continued.
This option would be ideal for researchers, allowing the rover to travel over long distances but letting the robotic snake explore more difficult-to-reach areas. In such a scenario, the robot snake could find its way into small holes, climb cliffs, and make its way down crevasses.
Ideally, the robot snake would not only work in tandem with a rover, but would also be able to help it out of tough situations.
"The connection between the robot and the rover also means that the snake robot will be able to assist the vehicle if the latter gets stuck," says senior researcher Pål Liljebäck. "In such a situation, the robot could lower itself to the ground and coil itself around a rock, enabling the rover to pull itself loose by means of the cable winch, which the rover would normally use to pull the snake robot towards the rover."
Currently, there is no working prototype for SINTEF’s proposed Martian robot snake, but researchers say they’ll have one up and running within months. In the meantime, check out a video of SINTEF’s firefighting robot, the Anna Konda.