The next age of space exploration is almost here, and walking robots are considered to have a key role in supporting human astronauts.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The success of the NASA Mars rovers Curiosity and Perseverance and the slew of scientific data they have delivered to Earth from the surface of the Red Planet have demonstrated how useful robots are in space exploration.
Robots can clearly explore alien planets and moons in a way that humans cannot easily or safely do. Additionally, as future crewed space exploration edges toward the launch pad in the form of the Artemis 1 launch, which will kick start a program that will return humanity to the moon and eventually carry a human to Mars, the buzzword is ‘sustainability.’
Achieving and allowing humans to stay longer ‘off-world’ means building infrastructure, a role that could fall to robots sent ahead of crewed missions as a spearhead to longer stays.
Even when this infrastructure is in place and longer stays in space and on Mars or the moon are possible, robots could accompany astronauts assisting them and acting as ‘advanced scouts’ collecting environmental data that could keep astronauts safe.
Exploring the surface of other worlds has thus far been relegated to wheeled robots like the two rovers. Still, scientists and engineers are considering robots with other locomotion forms to move across alien landscapes.
Among a variety of rolling, crawling, and jumping robots that have all been suggested for exploration of other planets and the moon, it is unsurprising that researchers have also turned to the form of locomotion that humanity is most familiar with — walking.
Robots Inspired by Nature
At the forefront of the investigation of walking robots for space exploration is a $3-million research project funded by NASA and led by Feifei Qian, a WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering.¹
The aim of the three-year project is to develop and test walking robots possessing legs that can traverse a range of surfaces that may be tricky for wheeled robots, such as ice and sand, as well as moving through treacherous and difficult-to-navigate environments.
The robots that the project will envision and build are ‘bio-inspired’ with legs modeled after those of animals and incorporating the unique walking styles of these creatures.
The project's goal is to go beyond mere mimicry; the team behind the project aims for a deeper understanding of what makes an animal successful in its unique environment and to bring this to space-exploring machines.
The robots suggested by the project will have another advantage over current wheeled explorers too — the ability to think for themselves.
8 NASA Robots That Will Study The Mysteries Of Space
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Walking Robots: Thinking on Their Feet with Their Feet
The rovers currently exploring the Martian surface and other robots that have been sent into space have mostly operated using pre-programmed agendas.
These agendas have been developed by scientists and engineers here on Earth and are comprised of detailed instructions telling the robot where to go and what to do when it begins operating in space.
The glaringly obvious flaw with this is if the robot encounters unexpected obstacles or scenarios — and we are talking about barely visualized and never before visited alien terrains here — they have a limited capacity to deal with such surprises.
Not only could this result in a robot missing the opportunity to investigate something of scientific value, but it could also lead to the machine getting stuck or damaged or even losing contact with its operators.
The team is therefore aiming to integrate these walking robots with sophisticated artificial intelligence that will help them ‘think on their feet’ and deal with environmental surprises as they arise.
Dealing with terrain requires robots to collect information regarding the surfaces they travel across. Rather than just using cameras to collect visual data, perhaps the most natural way of doing this is by using the appendages that actually make contact with these surfaces.
The team working on the NASA-funded project suggests sensors attached to their robots’ legs which will collect data about different soils like friction and erodibility, and how these factors are affected by elements like surface crusts, rock-covered soils, and ice content.
The team will also be attempting to develop sensors that monitor wider environmental parameters that control soil strength, including particle size and shape, soil moisture, and chemical composition.
This means walking robots will not just be collecting data to help them walk — they will be collecting information about the geological processes that occur on other planets.
When Robots Walked the Earth
Of course, sending these walking robots to Mars or even the moon to test them is not feasible, so researchers instead look for environments here on Earth that they suspect could resemble these alien vistas.
One walking robot that has already demonstrated its utility here on our planet before potentially heading off-world is the E-Walker.²
A paper published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI detailed how the state-of-the-art walking robot was used to construct the Large Aperture Space Telescope here on Earth. This telescope would usually be assembled in space, a task that the dexterous E-Walker robot would do in orbit if it is cleared for full duties.
The aim of the project is to allow space telescopes even larger than the James Webb Space Telescope without running up massive launch costs by launch components and having a robot construct the telescope in situ around the Earth.
Currently, further testing of the E-Walker and the construction of further prototypes is underway at the University of Lincoln in the U.K.
It is clear that robots will play a vital role in the future of space exploration, in orbit around Earth, on the surface of the moon and Mars, whether rolling, jumping, or walking alongside humanity.
References and Further Reading
Lee. L., Walking Robots Could Aid Research On Other Planets, (2022) Texas A&M University College of Arts & Sciences, [online], Available at: https://today.tamu.edu/2022/09/08/walking-robots-could-aid-research-on-other-planets/
Nair. M. N., Rai.M. C., Poozhiyil. M.,(2022) Design engineering a walking robotic manipulator for in-space assembly missions. Frontiers in Robotics and AI, Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frobt.2022.995813/full