NASA 'snake' may explore space

NASA's snakebot site

NASA researchers developing new tools to explore other planets are going

back to nature.

In the future, NASA may rely on the snake's size, shape and form as

an aid to exploring other planets' terrain and performing construction tasks

in space.

Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center are developing a snake robot,

or snakebot, that will have capabilities that wheeled rovers like the Mars

Pathfinder do not offer. The snakebot will be able to independently dig

in loose extraterrestrial soil, slither into cracks in a planet's surface

and plan routes over or around obstacles.

NASA announced Oct. 3 that it has designed a snakebot prototype to see

what capabilities it could have in the future. In the next couple of months,

NASA researchers plan to simulate the snakebot in a computer program so

they can automatically develop computer procedures to control the robot.

They will also build a second snakebot.

The snakebot is modeled after the polybot developed at Xerox Palo Alto

Research Center in California, but it contains different electronics. NASA's

initial test snake has a wire that carries communications and power to and

from the mechanical snake's computer brain.

In the Serpentine Robotics Project, NASA researchers are first developing

the snakebot to be able to move along the surface in innovative ways, such

as flipping backward over low obstacles and sidewinding. In the future,

NASA will develop its ability to become a mast or grasping arm, according

to a NASA statement.

As NASA develops the second snakebot, it will work on a control system

that will enable the robot to use sensors to decide what to do. A main computer

will tell smaller computers in the snakebot's segments what plan to carry

out. The researchers also plan to write software that allows the snake to

learn from its experiences, such as how to crawl from soft to hard surfaces

and how to move over rough, rocky surfaces.

In the next few years, NASA researchers also hope to make snakebot muscles

out of artificial plastic or rubber materials that will bend when electricity

is applied to them.

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