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NASA fashions mountain climbing robot

By Layer 8 on Thu, 02/05/09 - 10:31am.

 

NASA researchers today said they had built and tested a robot that can rappel off cliffs, travel over steep and rocky terrain, and explore deep craters. The prototype rover, called Axel, might help future robotic spacecraft better explore and investigate foreign worlds such as Mars. On Earth, Axel might assist in search-and-rescue operations in locations where people might not be able to reach.

Axel can operate upside down and right side up and uses only three motors: one to control each of its two wheels and a third to control a lever. The lever contains a scoop to gather lunar or planetary material for scientists to study, and it also adjusts the robot's two stereo cameras, which can tilt 360 degrees, NASA said.

Axel's cylindrical body has computing and wireless communications capabilities and an inertial sensor to operate autonomously. It also sports a tether that Axel can unreel to descend from a larger lander, rover or anchor point. The rover can use different wheel types, from large foldable wheels to inflatable ones, which help the rover tolerate a hard landing and handle rocky terrain, NASA said.

Another major advantage of the single Axel design is its potential use as a part of a larger system. One concept employs a single Axel deployed by tether from a larger rover for access to steep terrain.  In addition Axel rovers can be arranged in a family of configurations to carry larger payload modules, NASA said.

Axel is being developed  by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and researchers at the California Institute of Technology.

Axel would make a natural combination with the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) announced last week.

The purpose of EATR is to develop and demonstrate an autonomous robotic platform able to perform long-range, long-endurance missions without the need for manual or conventional re-fueling - in other words it needs to "eat."

According to researchers, the EATR system gets its energy by foraging, or what the firms describe as "engaging in biologically-inspired, organism-like, energy-harvesting behavior which is the equivalent of eating. It can find, ingest, and extract energy from biomass in the environment as well as use conventional and alternative fuels (such as gasoline, heavy fuel, kerosene, diesel, propane, coal, cooking oil, and solar) when suitable."

Axel nor EATR come one the heels of some other interesting shape-shifting robot work being done by  the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Chemical Robots (ChemBots) program.  DARPA and iRobot are looking to build soft, flexible, mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their static structural dimensions; reconstitute size, shape, and features while delivering a meaningful payloads or performing significant tasks, DARPA said. DARPA notes too that ChemBots represent the convergence of soft materials chemistry and robotics to create a fundamentally new class of soft meso-scale robots.

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