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SpaceBok robot

ESA develops hopping robot space probe

Image credit: esa

The European Space Agency (ESA) has developed a hopping robot dubbed SpaceBok, which is designed to navigate planets and moons via a hopping action.

The robot is touted as a more efficient way to navigate low-gravity celestial bodies as it can move in and out of craters with a lower risk of getting stuck on rocks and other debris.

The quadruped robot is designed and built by a Swiss student team from ETH Zurich and is currently being tested using robotic facilities at ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in the Netherlands.

It is also being used to investigate the potential of ‘dynamic walking’ to get around in low gravity environments.

PhD student Hendrik Kolvenbach said: “Instead of static walking, where at least three legs stay on the ground at all times, dynamic walking allows for gaits with full flight phases during which all legs stay off the ground. Animals make use of dynamic gaits due to their efficiency, but until recently, the computational power and algorithms required for control made it challenging to realise them on robots.

“For the lower gravity environments of the Moon, Mars or asteroids, jumping off the ground like this turns out to be a very efficient way to get around.”

SpaceBok robot

Image credit: esa

 

To test some of its abilities the team used SpaceBok to play a live-action game of ping pong. They mounted it sideways onto a free-floating platform to mimic a zero gravity environment in two dimensions, while moving themselves side to side with a panel for the robot to bounce from.

A reaction wheel helps the robot stabilise itself, swivelling 180 degrees mid-jump to position its feet on to the panel and push onto the opposite side.

“The technology of dynamically walking legged robots for terrestrial application is rather new - if you look at what Boston Dynamics, Anybotics and the MIT is doing in recent years - and thus it is definitely something that we will only see in space in the long term with many technical challenges yet to overcome,” Kolvenbach said.

The team believes SpaceBok could jump up to two metres high in lunar gravity.

As well as using a reaction wheel to stabilise the robot, springs in its legs store energy during landing and release it at take-off, reducing the amount of energy required to carry out jumps.

“The ping pong game was a nice way to demonstrate the capability of the robot to control its attitude and position its feet for landing in an extremely low-gravity environment - typically to be found on small moons or even asteroids,” he added.

Testing will continue in more realistic conditions, with jumps made over obstacles, hilly terrain, and realistic soil, eventually moving out of doors.

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