NASA has revealed details on its latest prototype robot designed to rove around on Mars, and compared to the lumbering brutes that have been sent to the Red Planet so far, this new one is so spry and skilled at climbing that even Spiderman would be jealous.
Remember the “unusual” tribot from last month? That was a radical departure from traditional roving ‘bot designs, intended for difficult terrain…but it’s got nothing on the unusual NASA Axel machine. Because Axel, as its name suggests, is pretty much a robot contained completely inside a single axle with two strangely-toothed wheels.
The design means it can operate upside down, at extreme angles, in sand, soil or even extremely rocky terrains. It should be able to whiz into and out of craters with ease–and that’s a marked difference to the way that the existing Spirit and Opportunity rovers are navigated on Mars. When faced with the unknown slipperiness of a crater’s sloped sides, these part-autonomous robots require huge input and planning on behalf of their Earth-bound controllers–the scene has to be imaged, and the driving route planned with minute precision lest the ‘bots six small wheels become irrevocably jammed in the rocks. In comparison, check out Axel’s amazing climbing skills in the video below, which also outlines how the robot would work in practice.
Axel, on the other hand, has large wheels with flat plates protruding at right-angles: These give it grip in sand and loose soil, and let it gain purchase on rocks for climbing. Its center of gravity is within the wheelbase, making it stable on difficult slopes, and giving it a potentially faster top speed. The robot’s also compatible with different wheel-types, including large inflatable ones that would protect the machine in the case of a fall.
As far as manipulators go, Axel has just a single central arm. This doubles as a sample-scraping and gathering device as well as acting as a lever should the robot actually get stuck in a situation that its wheels can’t handle…and it contains a rappelling system so the robot can lower itself over precipitous edges. Two cameras are mounted in the axle, and can give the device 360º of vision.
It’s pretty much the most all-terrain rover the space administration has come up with, and its simplicity is a clue to how it may find use on future Mars exploration missions: As a tethered “parasite” remote vehicle from a bigger robot like the flexible-legged Athlete prototype.
Better yet, the lessons learned from this NASA Jet Propulsion Lab project would find use in designing search and rescue robots for use here on Earth–An Axel-like machine would be invaluable in post-disaster rescue operations.
Related post: All-Terrain Tribot Rolls Where Man Fears To Tread