European space agency wants to put snake robots on Mars

Credit: SINTEF/Thor Nielsen.

Wheeled rovers like NASA's Curiosity aren't always able to access small, hard-to-reach crevices on the surface of planets like Mars. So researchers at Europe's Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research (SINTEF) are taking their inspiration from a slithery Earth creature -- the snake.

SINTEF said Monday that its scientists are exploring the potential of so-called snake robots, which could help more traditional rovers uncover the mysteries of the Red Planet by exploring areas other technologies can't reach.


"Maneuverability is a challenge," researchers Pål Liljebäck and Aksel Transeth said of rovers like Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity. "The vehicles just cannot get to many of the places from which samples have to be taken."

"The snake robot could travel to cliffs and look underneath overhangs," Howie Choset, a Carnegie Mellon robotics professor, told ABC News. "It could find a crevasse, crawl down it and extract a sample, which itself could tell us how Mars evolved as a planet."

Liljebäck and Transeth are now conducting a study to see how snake bots would fare on Mars, hoping that such a technology could work in conjunction with a rover to collect samples.


"One option is to make the robot into one of the vehicle's arms, with the ability to disconnect and reconnect itself, so that it can be lowered to the ground, where it can crawl about independently," they said.

The snake robot could also help a robot that gets stuck. In 2009, NASA's Spirit got caught in a section of soft soil and was never able to free itself.

But scientists still have a lot of work to do.

"We're still having a hard time figuring out how to make these robots work in bumpy and highly confined spaces here on Earth," Choset added.

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