A snake-like robot could assist conventional wheeled rovers in Martian research, offering better mobility and manoeuvrability.
SITNEF researchers, working together with the European Space Agency (ESA), are currently assessing the feasibility of a concept of a crawling robot that could be deployed together with a conventional rover.
The team believes such a mission would open new research possibilities.
"Manoeuvrability is a challenge. The Spirit rover was lost after it became stuck in the sand on Mars. The vehicles just cannot get to many of the places from which samples have to be taken", said Pål Liljebäck, a researcher at SINTEF, explaining the major advantage of the snake-like robotic concept.
Unlike the rovers, snake robots could access extremely tight and unstable places, collecting samples from locations out of reach of the rovers.
"We are looking at several alternatives to enable a rover and a robot to work together,” said Aksel Transeth. “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," he said.
The researchers foresee the snake robot could be developed from one of the rover’s arms that could be detached if needed and operate independently. After performing its tasks, the snake, still connected to the rover through a cable, would attach itself back to the main rover. Communication between the pair will be facilitated via signals transmitted down the cable.
The combination of a rover and the snake arm would enable utilising the advantages of both systems – the rover’s ability to cross large distances and the snake’s capacity to reach inaccessible places.
"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,” Liljebäck said. "In such a situation, the robot could lower itself to the ground and coil itself around a rock enabling the rover pull itself loose by means of the cable winch, which the rover would normally use to pull the snake robot towards the rover."
The results of the feasibility study should be available at the end of 2013.
So far, NASA has landed four solar-powered rovers on Mars, all equipped with six wheels and robotic arms to take soil samples and operate cameras.