What kind of robot might you design and build to explore the narrow, geyser-spewing vents below the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus?
Meet EELS, short for Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor. This autonomous snake-like robot is designed to handle extreme alien terrain, including a descent into these treacherous vents without any real-time input from its humans at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
And the team is “taking on the challenge with the mentality of a startup: Build quickly, test often, learn, adjust, repeat.” This NASA JPL video shares how they’re testing the EELS prototype on California mountain snow, ice rink surfaces, the JPL Mars Yard sand, and more.
From JPL’s Snake-Like EELS Slithers Into New Robotics Terrain at jpl.nasa.gov:
“EELS could pick a safe course through a wide variety of terrain on Earth, the Moon, and far beyond, including undulating sand and ice, cliff walls, craters too steep for rovers, underground lava tubes, and labyrinthine spaces within glaciers…
“EELS creates a 3D map of its surroundings using four pairs of stereo cameras and lidar, which is similar to radar but employs short laser pulses instead of radio waves. With the data from those sensors, navigation algorithms figure out the safest path forward. The goal has been to create library of ‘gaits,’ or ways the robot can move in response to terrain challenges, from sidewinding to curling in on itself, a move the team calls ‘banana.’
Eventually, EELS will be fitted with 48 actuators, “essentially little motors” that are like “48 steering wheels”
“Many of them have built-in force-torque sensing, working like a kind of skin so EELS can feel how much force it’s exerting on terrain. That helps it to move vertically in narrow chutes with uneven surfaces, configuring itself to push against opposing walls at the same time like a rock climber.”
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• Testing a Space Rover Under Alaskan Ice
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• Exploring Space with Shape-Shifting Tensegrity Robots