European researchers are working on a robotic explorer that won't get stuck in soft sand and can squeeze into tight places.
Their idea is a snake-like robot that can travel great distances and maneuver into places that would otherwise be inaccessible. The robot also would be able to slink through hazardous terrain, such as the soft sand that stranded and eventually did in NASA's robotic Mars rover Spirit in 2010.
"Maneuverability is a challenge," said Pal Liljeback, a researcher with Sintef, an independent research organization based in Norway. "The Spirit rover was lost after it became stuck in the sand on Mars. The vehicles just cannot get to many of the places from which samples have to be taken."
Researchers, who are working on the project at the request of the European Space Agency, are looking at making the robotic snake part of a larger rover.
The idea is to use a large rover, which would be able to travel long distances, and attach a robotic snake that could crawl along the ground around the rover.
"We are looking at several alternatives to enable a rover and a robot to work together," said Aksel Transeth, a researcher at Sintef, in a statement. "Since the rover has a powerful energy source, it can provide the snake robot with power through a cable extending between the rover and the robot. If the robot had to use its own batteries, it would run out of power and we would lose it."
One option, according to Sintef, would be to design the robotic snake so it could detach itself from the rover, do its work independently and then re-attach itself.
The robotic snake also could help pull the rover out of soft sand or a depression in the ground.
"In such a situation, the robot could lower itself to the ground and coil itself around a rock enabling the rover to pull itself loose by means of the cable winch, which the rover would normally use to pull the snake robot towards the rover," said Liljeback.
This isn't the first time that Sintef has worked on robotic snakes.
In 2008, Sintef reported that it had designed another robotic snake that was 1.5-meters long and made of aluminum. The snakes were designed to inspect and clean complicated industrial pipe systems that are too narrow to be accessible to humans.
Last summer, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute announced that they had built a robotic snake that can move through the pipes and systems of a nuclear power plant, inspecting areas that otherwise would be difficult to reach.
The robot, which has a video camera and LED light attached to its head, also has been tested in search-and-rescue environments.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.