NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is pushing the limits of robot exploration with their autonomous snake robot, EELS (Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor). Originally designed to search for signs of life beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, EELS has proven to be highly adaptable and capable of traversing various challenging terrains on Earth and beyond.
Rather than following a traditional spacecraft development process, the team at JPL has taken a startup-like approach. They have been rapidly building, testing, and learning from EELS, with the goal of creating a versatile robot that can navigate unknown environments and make decisions autonomously. EELS is designed to sense and assess its surroundings, calculate risks, and collect valuable data without the need for real-time human input.
Since the project’s inception in 2019, the team has been continuously refining both the hardware and software components of EELS. The current version of the robot, EELS 1.0, is 13 feet long and weighs about 220 pounds. It consists of 10 segments that can rotate and use screw threads for propulsion, traction, and grip. The team has experimented with different types of screws, including 3D-printed plastic screws for testing on looser terrains and sharper metal screws for icy surfaces.
To prepare EELS for its ultimate mission, the robot has been extensively tested in various environments, including sandy, snowy, and icy terrains. The team has conducted field tests at JPL’s Mars Yard, a ski resort in Southern California, and even an indoor ice rink. These tests have allowed the team to refine EELS’ capabilities and evaluate its performance in different conditions.
One of the major challenges in designing EELS is creating a robot that can adapt to different terrains and recover from unexpected obstacles. To address this, EELS creates a 3D map of its surroundings using cameras and lidar sensors. Navigation algorithms analyze this data to determine the safest path forward. With its flexible design and multiple configurations, EELS can navigate narrow chutes, steep cliffs, and even underground lava tubes.
In conclusion, EELS represents a significant step towards developing robots that can explore previously inaccessible destinations autonomously. With its ability to traverse unknown terrains and adapt to various challenges, EELS opens up new possibilities for future planetary exploration.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is EELS?
EELS (Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor) is an autonomous snake robot developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It is designed to explore extreme environments and gather data without real-time human input.
2. What is the purpose of EELS?
The primary purpose of EELS is to search for signs of life in the ocean beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. However, it is also being tested in various terrains on Earth to prepare for future missions.
3. How does EELS navigate different terrains?
EELS uses a combination of cameras and lidar sensors to create a 3D map of its surroundings. Navigation algorithms analyze this data to determine the safest path forward, allowing EELS to adapt to various terrains.
4. What challenges does EELS face?
One of the major challenges in designing EELS is creating a robot that can adapt to unpredictable terrains and recover from unexpected obstacles. The team at JPL is continuously refining both the hardware and software of EELS to overcome these challenges.
5. Can EELS make decisions autonomously?
Yes, EELS is equipped with autonomous capabilities that allow it to sense its environment, calculate risks, and make decisions without real-time human input. The goal is for EELS to recover from any issues that arise on its own, without human assistance.