Snakelike robot on the surface of Mars

Robotic snakes could perform housekeeping work on ISS

Image credit: SINTEF/ISS and NASA

On behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA), Norwegian researchers are looking into the possibility of using long, thin robots to carry out inspection and maintenance works on the International Space Station (ISS). If successful, these robots could find future work on the Moon and on comets.

Currently, a semi-autonomous ‘Astrobee’ is due to join the crew on board the ISS to carry out routine inspection work, using puffs of air to move around in zero gravity.

Now, researchers at the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research (SINTEF) in Norway – the largest independent research organisation in Scandinavia – are looking into the possibilities of adding a snake-like robot to the crew.

SINTEF first began investigating the potential of snake-like robots to help astronauts working on Mars with access and mobility issues. The most likely first job of one of these robots, however, would be in inspection and minor maintenance work on the ISS.

A robot performing these tedious tasks would allow human inhabitants to spend more of their limited time on research work.

“We believe that we can design a robot that can hold on, roll itself up and then extend its body in order to reach new contact points,” said senior research scientist, Dr Aksel Transeth. “Moreover, we believe that it can creep in among equipment components on the ISS and use equipment surfaces to grain traction in order to keep moving forward – much in the same way as real snakes do in the wild.”

The ESA-commissioned study hopes to refine the requirements of a snake-like robot, such as identifying the sensors necessary for it to be able to navigate the ISS.

“More ambitious applications include potential activities on comets and the Moon,” said Dr Transeth. “[A] snake robot that can assist ISS astronauts in maintaining their equipment is perhaps a solution which can be possible to realise on a more short term.”

In 2016, ESA announced plans for building a permanent Moon base (‘Moon Village’) to replace the ISS as a permanent human presence in space after its retirement in 2024. This lunar settlement would likely exist in lava tunnels, formed from molten rock, to protect humans from exposure to cosmic radiation and other threats. The snake-like robots would play an important role in inspecting these tunnels to ensure that they are suitable to live and work in.

Among other areas, ESA is world-leading in the study of comets, and became the first organisation to land on a comet (Comet 67P) in 2014. However, the study of the comet was cut short as a system of harpoons to latch onto the comet failed.

“There is pretty much no gravity on a comet,” said Dr Transeth. “If you try to walk on the surface, you could be thrown into space, so we have to find ways in which snake robots can move around on a comet while at the same time keeping themselves fixed on the surface.”

Robots inspired by the streamlined shape of a snake have been proposed as ideal tools to move around locations that would prove awkward or dangerous for humans, such as after disasters to assist with safety assessments.

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