NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has created a snake-like robot for exploring inaccessible destinations.
Called EELS (Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor), the robot is designed to find life in the icy vents of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and its subsurface ocean. Equipped with its own propulsion system, this robot snake can autonomously map, traverse, and explore previously unexplored territories. This innovative device is made up of segments with “first-of-a-kind rotating propulsion units,” allowing it to grip surfaces and move underwater. Researchers foresee that the robot snake will be able to reach terrain that may otherwise be difficult to access.
“It has the capability to go to locations where other robots can’t go,” said JPL’s Matthew Robinson, EELS project manager, in the NASA statement. “Although some robots are better at navigating specific types of terrain, the idea for EELS is the ability to do it all.”
The first EELS prototype was built in 2019, and since then, researchers have been making continuous revisions. They have conducted frequent tests and refined EELS’ hardware and software. The robot has been tested in snow, sand, and ice, including the Mars Yard at JPL.
EELS is 13 feet (4 meters) long and weighs about 220 pounds (100 kilograms). It is made up of “10 identical segments that rotate, using screw threads for propulsion, traction, and grip.” EELS has four pairs of stereo cameras and LiDAR for creating a 3D map of its surroundings. This map will help the robot to determine the safest path forward with its navigation algorithm. The team is currently deciding which science instruments to integrate with their snake robot.
“Our focus so far has been on autonomous capability and mobility, but eventually, we’ll look at what science instruments we can integrate with EELS,” Robinson said. “Scientists tell us where they want to go, what they’re most excited about, and we’ll provide a robot that will get them there. How? Like a startup, we just have to build it.”