Electronic Devices: How Snakebots Will Work

The snakebot was developed to be able to travel over any terrain and collect data on other planets.

Snakebots are robots that move like a snake to slither around and over obstacles. Why? Well, some explanation is necessary.

WHY LIKE A SNAKE?

The snake has a very flexible spine consisting of over 400 vertebrae (the bones that make up the spine). As a matter of fact, almost the entire body of the snake is one long spine. The snake's spine allows it to move around and over any ground no matter how rough or rocky it may be. A snake can coil around itself, flip over obstacles, and move backwards. The snake does not turn over and lie helplessly like a turtle or become unable to climb out of a hole like many mammals. The spinal structure and the many different muscles that provide strength make the snake an unstoppable moving machine. The snake can even burrow under the ground and out again with little effort.

A ROBOT SNAKE?

Many types of robots have been developed for space exploration such as the robotic explorers sent into orbit or to other planets to collect data or samples. The most famous of the robotic explorers are the Mars Pathfinder and its robotic vehicle the Sorjourner Rover which looks like a 6-wheeled dune buggy.

The problem with the robotic vehicles is that they cannot navigate around obstacles easily and can often get stuck in holes or turn over like a turtle - unable to get upright. This limitation in movement also limits the ability of the robotic vehicle to fully explore a planetary terrain. Enter, the Snakebot.

Engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center have been developing "an intelligent robot snake" that can do exploration and, possibly, some construction tasks. Unlike other robots NASA has used, the snakebot will be able to burrow under the ground and collect samples from different soil levels. The snakebot will even be able to move in and out of cracks in the planetary surface.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The snakebot is made up of up to 30 different segments, much like the vertebrae of a snake. Each segment contains mechanical components which are controlled by sensors and small computers. A central computer controls most of the movement and commands for the entire robot. The software written for the snakebot communicates information from the sensors to the central computer telling it that the segment is touching something. The central computer will determine the direction or action the segment should take to overcome the obstacle. Software is being developed that will "learn", allowing the snakebot to make determinations on how to correct movement depending on the type of terrain it encounters--for example, if the terrain goes from sandy to rocky.

The snakebot will be covered in an artificial skin, allowing it to withstand extremes of temperature and make it water resistant.

The snakebot is the lightest of all the explorer robots and can be stored in a relatively small space, taking up less weight and less room in the spacecraft. It also does not require a ramp to deploy it onto the planetary surface.

Another great feature of the snakebot is that it is easily repairable in space. Space segments can be on hand for repair if needed.

Equipped with cameras, sampling mechanics, and environmental sensors the snakebot will be a valuable tool in space exploration.

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