NASA’s autonomous robotic snake in the hunt for life on an icy Saturn moon

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has created a self-propelled, autonomous robotic snake designed to discover excessive extraterrestrial terrain. Its first-of-a-kind propulsion system means it could possibly boldly go the place no robotic snake has gone earlier than.

The robotic snake is known as an Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) and was impressed by a want to search for life deep in Saturn’s icy moon, Enceladus.

Within the mid-to-late-2000s, when the Cassini spacecraft despatched again to Earth photographs of Enceladus, certainly one of Saturn’s 83 moons, scientists found it was energetic and hiding a salty ocean of liquid water beneath its crust, one thing that solely a handful of worlds are recognized to own. What’s distinctive about Enceladus – which is sufficiently small to suit throughout the size of the UK – is that it repeatedly sprays plumes of icy particles from that ocean, blended with water and easy natural chemical substances, into house.

Investigating these plumes, and the slim vents they escape from, are what prompted the event of EELS. Building of the prototype started in 2019 and has been often up to date. Since 2022, the JPL crew has been conducting month-to-month subject assessments to refine the robotic’s {hardware} and software program in order that it’s in a position to function autonomously.

The present iteration of EELS is 13-ft (4-m) lengthy and weighs about 220 lb (100 kg). Its 10 similar, rotating segments use screw heads for propulsion and grip. The EELS crew have experimented with completely different screws to be used in numerous terrains: 3D-printed plastic screws for looser terrain and sharper steel screws for ice.

The crew has examined EELS utilizing a snowy ‘robotic playground’ at a Southern Californian ski resort, at an indoor ice rink, and in sandy terrain. As a result of they’ve entered new territory with EELS, the testing course of has been tutorial.

The first EELS prototype being tested on a Pasadena ice rink
The primary EELS prototype being examined on a Pasadena ice rink


“We now have a special philosophy of robotic growth than conventional spacecraft, with many fast cycles of testing and correcting,” stated Hiro Ono, JPL’s principal investigator. “There are dozens of textbooks about the way to design a four-wheel car, however there is no such thing as a textbook about the way to design an autonomous snake robotic to boldly go the place no robotic has gone earlier than. We now have to put in writing our personal.”

Given the communication lag between Earth and deep house, EELS’ means to function autonomously is necessary. If it runs into an issue, it wants to have the ability to get well by itself with out counting on human help.

“Think about a automotive driving autonomously, however there are not any cease indicators, no visitors alerts, not even any roads,” stated Rohan Thakker, the challenge’s autonomy lead. “The robotic has to determine what the street is and attempt to comply with it. Then it must go down a 100-feet [30-m] drop and never fall.”

To help with autonomy, EELS makes use of 4 pairs of stereo cameras and LiDAR (Gentle Detection and Ranging) to provide a 3D map of its environment. LiDAR determines vary by concentrating on a floor or object with a laser and measuring the time it takes for the mirrored mild to return to the receiver. EELS makes use of this data to create navigation algorithms in order that it could possibly extra simply traverse difficult areas.

To check EELS’ mapping capabilities, final yr, the JPL crew dropped the robotic’s head – the half that accommodates the cameras and LiDAR – right into a vertical shaft at Athabasca Glacier within the Canadian Rockies. They’ll return to the glacier in September with an up to date model of EELS to see the way it fared.

EELS’ closing kind will include 48 little motors (actuators) that can present extra flexibility. Many have built-in force-torque sensing, which can allow EELS to ‘really feel’ how a lot stress it’s exerting on the terrain. It will assist it to navigate uneven surfaces in slim areas very like a rock climber does, shimmying upward or downward by pushing towards opposing partitions.

The subsequent step is to include scientific devices.

“Our focus to this point has been on autonomous functionality and mobility, however ultimately we’ll take a look at what science devices we will combine with EELS,” stated Matthew Robinson, EELS challenge supervisor. “Scientists inform us the place they wish to go, what they’re most enthusiastic about, and we’ll present a robotic that can get them there.”

EELS adaptability implies that, except for Enceladus, the robotic snake can be utilized to discover Mars’ polar caps, or deep icy crevasses on our personal planet.

Nonetheless, it is a while until EELS will probably be slithering throughout the terrain of different planets. Scientists hope the robotic will probably be full by fall subsequent yr, nonetheless it is then anticipated to be a decade-long look forward to a spacecraft to taxi EELS to Enceladus.

The video beneath, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, reveals EELS being examined in numerous environments.

Testing Out JPL’s New Snake Robotic

Supply: NASA/JPL

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