Norwegian researchers are investigating the possibilities of using robotic snakes to explore planets for the European Space Agency (ESA). In the future, they might even save your life.
The Norwegian independent research organization SINTEF, together with the Norwegian Space Centre (NSC) and CIRiS (Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space), have been working with ESA on the SERPEX project (Serpentine Robots for Planetary Exploration) since June 2013.
Their task is to study the possibility of using a robotic snake that can slither, climb and pull in areas that are inaccessible to a rover on Mars, and if need be, pull it out of a stuck situation. The energy intensive snake could be attached to the much larger rover by a power and control cable so that it could be let loose for exploring and retracted back when needed.
“Manoeuvrability is a challenge,” said Pål Liljebäck and AkselTranseth, a senior scientist at SINTEF ICT Applied Cybernetics. “The Spirit rover was eventually lost after more than five years of operation when it became stuck in the sand on Mars. The vehicles just cannot get to may of the places from which it could possibly be beneficial to take samples from.”
Liljebäck, a scientist at SINTEF ICT Applied Cybernetics and post doc at NTNU Department of Engineering Cybernetics, is one of four authors of a new book in 2013 published by Springer called Snake Robots, Modeling, Mechatronics and Control.
The concept of using robotic snakes is not altogether new to the Norwegian researchers. It is based partly on technology that dates back to the 1970s with Japanese professor Shigeo Hirose, a pioneer in robotic technology with whom SINTEF and NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) has previously cooperated. The NTNU/SINTEF Centre for Advanced Robotics, ROBOTNOR, has actively researched snake robots since 2003 following several major city fires in Trondheim.
In the quest to improve fire safety, SINTEF researchers came up with the idea of using a self-propelled fire hose to assist fire fighters in extreme environments. The result was research prototype Anna Konda, a water hydraulic snake, which has since laid the foundation for its current research activity on snake robots.
NTNU and SINTEF have also developed a snake robot called Mamba that can swim under water, pipe inspection snake robot Piko, a tactile sensor version for locomotion in environments with obstacles called Kulko, and Wheeko, a passive wheel variation (i.e. wheels without motors) that allows it to slither forward over a flat surface much like a snake.
“This is one way how (robots) mimics how snakes move,” says Transeth. “This pushing means they slide along the direction of their body instead of sideways.”
The greatest expectations currently are around its latest project SERPEX for the ESA, which will be completed in March 2014. Researchers at SINTEF ICT (Applied Cybernetics) and CIRiS were given a grant of EUR 75,000 to conduct a feasibility study to see how snake robots could give land stations and moving rovers increased accessibility on planetary missions such as Mars.
SINTEF, together with NTNU, has studied algorithms for making the snake robots transverse obstacles and move forward efficiently and how they should be built for touch locomotion. Researchers even considered putting artificial skins on the snake robots at one point in its efforts to mimic nature as closely as possible, but later abandoned the idea.
“Biological snakes push against obstacles,” says Transeth. “One of the reasons they are able to do this is that they can sense the environment. We have developed environmental sensors in each robot joint.”
Part of the challenges with making a space snake robot is making them agile and strong enough to tackle rough planetary surfaces while carrying a large battery source. The study is looking at having a cable attached to the snake that can both provide energy and be used to reel the snake robot in and out from the rover for missions. The snake robot would be able to crawl in tight and steep spaces to gather soil samples that would otherwise be out of reach.
“The rovers are amazing machines that go where cars can’t, but the new rover for NASA weighs 900 kilos and there is just one, so they are careful,” says Transeth. “The snake robot is basically this thing you can have fun with. You can go down that steep slope and winch it back.”
The agile robots also have the potential to be used for everything from high tech operations, such as subsea maintenance operations inside process pipes, or even to water and weed plants in your garden by connecting the robot to a water outlet in a garden.
In the future, this research could even lead to life-saving solutions using snake robots on Earth. For example, they assist in search and rescue missions for victims stuck in ruins after earthquakes. Its long, flexible and slim shape makes it ideal for motion in these tight and inaccessible environments.
“With the right kind of funding, in four years’ time you could probably have snake robots that crawl into fallen buildings and find people,” says Transeth.
Videos of the robots can be found at: http://robotnor.no/research/serpentine-robots-for-planetary-exploration-serpex/
FACTS (Fernando – maybe this section can be put in a gray box)
The ESA is the client for a feasibility study being carried out by SINTEF and CIRiS (June 2013 – March 2014)
Funding: NOK 500,000. CIRiS, a department of NTNU's social research institute Samfunnsforskning, is also taking part, and will be looking into the project's logistic and operational aspects.
So far, NASA has landed four rovers on Mars: Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, and Curiosity in 2012. The latter is highly advanced and comes with a built-in laboratory.
The ESA has new missions planned for 2016 and 2028.
Caption: The persons in the picture are (starting from the left): AkselTranseth (SINTEF), Knut Fossum (NTNU CIRiS), and PålLiljebäck (NTNU/SINTEF).
Credit: SINTEF/Thor Nielsen
Caption: Wheeko, a passive wheel snake robot that can slither forward over flat surfaces.