High-mobility legged robots could aid research on other planetary bodies

A $ 3 million NASA-funded research involving Texas A&M University scientists will test the feasibility of new surface-exploration technology: walking robots. The research group also includes scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, Georgia Institute of Technology and NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The three-year research project, led by Feifei Qian, a WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, is aimed at creating and testing high-mobility legged robots that could more easily glide through icy surfaces, crusted sand and other difficult-to-navigate environments, significantly enhancing scientists’ abilities to gather information from planetary bodies.

Ryan Ewing, Robert R. Berg Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M, and Marion Nachon, an associate research scientist in geology and geophysics, are co-investigators on this research project.

At present, NASA uses wheeled rovers to navigate the surface of Mars and conduct planetary science. When the robot encounters unexpected scenarios or discovers interesting measurements, it has limited capabilities to adapt its plan. This can hinder how robots and exploration rovers navigate new environments or even cause them to miss scientific opportunities, according to the researchers.

The NASA-funded project aims to test next-generation, high-mobility robots that can agilely move through planetary surfaces and flexibly support scientific exploration goals.

“We will conduct this research in two key planetary analog sites that present well-defined gradients in soil types from crusty sand at White Sands Dune Field, NM, to icy rock mixtures at Mt. Hood, Ore. Our objective is to integrate high- mobility legged robots with embedded terrain-sensing technologies and cognitive human decision models to study the geotechnical properties of these soils, “Ewing said in a statement.

Leveraging the latest “direct-drive” actuator technology, the bio-inspired legged robots can feel the terrain through their legs. This lets them interact with the environment in the same manner as animals, adjusting their movement as needed.

The ability to “feel” the terrain using legs also allows these robots to easily gather information about the environment as they move around and adjust exploration strategies based on this information.