When the job demands ingenuity, NASA engineers whip gadgets worthy of James Bond.
- By Eric Adams
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 3 of 6)
If Q had designed this robotic snake, he would probably just have it slither up to an enemy's Mercedes and explode. NASA's vision is a bit more ambitious: explore new worlds and inspect spacecraft inside and out.
The task is difficult. Serpentine robotics is among the hardest-and thus least researched-fields. "A robotic snake is a wide-open engineering problem," says Charles Neveu, an Ames contractor employed by QSS Group, Inc. "We found that very attractive."
Neveu, a computer scientist who is working on the project with leader Silvano Colombano, explains that serpentine movement is useful in space exploration because it allows for a variety of tasks: burrowing into the ground or crawling through the labyrinthine innards of spacecraft to inspect hard-to-reach parts. Wheels and legs are ineffective in microgravity, he points out, but the ability to coil around pipes and slither through narrow passageways is very handy. "A snake is basically one long prehensile tail, so a robotic snake can swing like a monkey from one structural member to the next," Neveu says.
Snakebot now exists only as a prototype, powered by off-the-shelf hobby motors at each joint and formed from plastic bolted and glued together ("It cost us less than $500 and works great!" Neveu says). A second prototype under construction incorporates sensors to tell when the robot is touching things and at what angle each of its joints is positioned-crucial for maintaining precise control. The scientists programmed the first prototype to execute undulatory, inchworm, and sidewinder motions.
The challenge they now face is getting Snakebot to go where they want it to. "Thrashing around will move the snake, but if you want to do anything specific it gets really hard really fast," Neveu says. The answer: software simulation. The team will devise a computerized snake, environment, and control system, then introduce learning schemes and evolvable intelligence. Once the simulated Snakebot learns how to crawl around, they'll transfer the technology to the real snake.
It probably would be easier to just make it creep up somewhere and explode.
Personal Satellite Assistant
This little red ball-the Personal Satellite Assistant-is a cross between the all-knowing computer HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the small floating sphere that shoots tiny laser blasts at Luke Skywalker in Star Wars-although the PSA's designers don't expect their invention to go berserk and fire at astronauts.