An artist's illustration of a retro space robot. Depositphotos.

Scientists Are Developing “Walking Robots” To Explore Planets

"These robots are designed to "not just mimic how animals look, but also to understand what makes them successful on different terrains..."

Researchers from Texas A&M University are investigating the feasibility of using walking robots to explore the surface of Mars instead of wheeled rovers for planetary exploration, which NASA uses today.

Among the co-investigators in the project supported by NASA and led by Feifei Qian, a WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering, are Ryan Ewing, the Robert R. Berg Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and Marion Nachon, an associate research scientist in geology and geophysics. Scientists can gain a better understanding of planets through the development and testing of walking robots with legs that can easily navigate difficult environments like ice, crusted sand, and other challenging terrains.

In spite of the fact that the Mars Exploration Rover and other robots were successfully launched into space, their programs normally require humans to give them detailed instructions about what to do and where to go before they arrive. When an unexpected situation or interesting measurement is discovered, the robot is unable to adjust its direction. A lack of navigational capability may hinder robots or rovers in their ability to explore new environments or even prevent them from taking advantage of scientific opportunities.

A better understanding of robotics technology and its integration with planetary science and cognitive science will make robot-aided planetary exploration more efficient, according to Ewing. The purpose of this project is to test high-mobility robots that can explore planetary surfaces with agility and flexibility while supporting scientific goals.

“We will conduct this research in two planetary analog sites that offer gradients in soil types between crusty sand on White Sands Dune Field, N.M., and ice rock mixtures on Mount Hood, Ore.,” Ewing said. The goal of our project is to investigate the geotechnical properties of these soils using high-mobility legged robots with embedded terrain-sensing techniques and cognitive human decision models.

They mimic animal forms in their ability to move on challenging surfaces like soft sand, which is why robotic legs have been designed based on animals’ abilities to move on difficult surfaces. This robots can feel the terrain (such as sand softness and rock shape) with direct-drive actuators. Using this ability, the leg robots can interact with the environment in a similar manner to animals, adjusting their movements in accordance with the environment.

These robots are designed to “not just mimic how animals look, but also to understand what makes them successful on different terrains,” according to Qian.

As they move around, these robots are able to gather information about the environment by “feeling” the terrain with their legs and adjust exploration strategies accordingly.

Ewing explained that the study will examine the effects of the surface crusts, rock-covered soils, and ice content on friction and erodibility. “We will deploy the direct-drive legged robots to map soil strength at two sites that are like landscapes on the Moon, Mars, and other worlds. We will simultaneously measure environmental parameters that control soil strength, including particle size and shape, soil moisture, chemical composition, and ice content.”

In order to properly understand the planetary environment, Qian emphasizes the importance of sending robots and rovers on initial missions before sending humans.

Even in environments where astronauts are safe, mobile robots can integrate scientific equipment and take precise measurements, Qian said.

When scientists finally manage to create walking robots, coupling them with artificial intelligence will probably be the next step to take.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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