CMU, NASA JPL collaborate to make EELS snake robotic to discover distant oceans


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Version 1.0 of the EELS robot during field testing in Alberta, Canada in September 2023.

Model 1.0 of the EELS robotic throughout area testing in Alberta, Canada, in September 2023. | Supply: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a collaboration that was 17 years within the making, Carnegie Mellon College, or CMU, researchers labored with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to create an autonomous snake-like robotic. The Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor, or EELS, is a self-propelled robotic. NASA scientists mentioned they hope to make use of EELS to seek for indicators of life within the ocean beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s Enceladus moon.

EELS was developed at NASA’s JPL with collaboration from Carnegie Mellon, Arizona State University, and the University of California, San Diego. Howie Choset, CMU’s Kavčić-Moura Professor of Laptop Science within the Faculty of Laptop Science, Matt Travers, a senior programs scientist on the faculty’s Robotics Institute (RI), and Andrew Orekhov, a undertaking scientist within the RI, contributed to the project

The ensuing robotic can navigate excessive terrains, together with ice, sand, rocks, cliff partitions, deep craters, underground lava tubes, and glaciers. The CMU workforce developed the controllers for the robotic. As well as, an early prototype used modules developed by HEBI Robotics, a college spinout that Choset based in 2014. 

“Enceladus is basically coated with water,” Choset advised The Robot Report. “But it surely’s beneath the rock that varieties the moon. Within the South Pole, the rock and ice are about 2 km [1.2 mi.] thick, and there are geysers that spit the water out from the underground ocean into area. So, there’s a perception that for those who fly a spacecraft to Enceladus, land, after which get into the geysers, you could possibly swim on this extraterrestrial ocean.” 

EELS snake robotic constructed for area purposes

“So, we’ve been engaged on snake robots for a really very long time,” Choset mentioned. “And what’s good about snake robots on the whole, is they’ll use their many joints and their slender physique to string via tightly packed volumes and get to areas that individuals in equipment in any other case can’t entry.”

This makes snake robots good for a lot of purposes, together with search and rescue, he mentioned. On this case, EELS will use these capabilities to wriggle into cracks in Enceladus’ layer of ice. EELS stands out from different snake robots due to its “wheels.” These wheels look extra like corkscrews than conventional wheels, mentioned Choset. 

“When these corkscrews rotate, they type of penetrate the ice a bit bit, but additionally provides the mechanism the flexibility to roll ahead,” he defined. “So the robotic has the flexibility to propel itself, not solely with the snake-like movement but additionally these corkscrew wheels that permit it to traverse icy surfaces actually rapidly.” 

Choset mentioned these wheels will assist the robotic to higher transfer throughout ice till it might probably discover a crack or geyser gap to crawl into.

“The autonomy that we developed is the robotic’s means to get into a decent area, after which use the constraints of that tight area to propel itself ahead,” he mentioned. 

However that’s solely half of the battle. As soon as the EELS robotic has discovered its manner into considered one of these holes, it has to have the ability to swim via Enceladus’ ocean to seek for potential indicators of life. Choset’s workforce already had expertise constructing swimming snake robots. 

“We constructed quite a lot of snake robots, however the one we most just lately constructed was a swimming one referred to as HUMRS, which stands for ‘Hardened Underwater Modular Robotic Snake,’” Choset mentioned. The CMU workforce was in a position to apply what it realized whereas growing HUMRS to this undertaking with NASA JPL. 

Connections deliver the best individuals on board

Choset’s long-held connections inside the business introduced him onto the EELS undertaking, alongside along with his experience in designing snake-like robots. 

“I went to Caltech as a graduate scholar, and JPL was a part of Caltech,” he mentioned. “So, each time there’s a possibility to work with JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab, I leap on it, as a result of it jogs my memory of my younger graduate scholar days.” 

It wasn’t simply the prospect to work with JPL that introduced Choset on board, nonetheless. He was recruited by Rohan Thakkar, a researcher who labored in Choset’s group 17 years in the past as a highschool scholar. 

“I feel it’s vital for individuals to understand that it’s not only a bunch of engineers getting collectively to construct some mechanism as in the event that they’re studying from a recipe or a cookbook,” Choset mentioned. “Engineering is essential, however I would like individuals to acknowledge the engineers behind the engineering.”

Choset mentioned that private connections, just like the one between him and his CMU college students, are what retains the business working. 

Editor’s word: HEBI Robots will exhibit at Sales space 448-12 on the Robotics Summit & Expo, which might be on Might 1 and a pair of on the Boston Conference and Exhibition Middle. Registration is now open.


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