One of the biggest challenges facing space exploration involves designing probes capable of managing the less-than-hospitable terrain present on distant planets. More traditional designs - wheeled probes of the sort you'd see on the Moon - don't really work all that well on uneven, mountainous, or hostile terrain. As a result, researchers have had to come up with some pretty creative design ideas for their probes, from tumbleweeds to jellyfish to geckos. The latest design - developed by scientists in Europe - feels like it was drawn straight out of Marvel Comics.
More specifically, they've designed a robot that clearly draws inspiration from Spider-Man.
"Spiders travel around surface-free space between tree branches and can position themselves in mid-air," explained researcher LiYu Wang, who designed the new robot along with colleagues at the Bio-Inspired Robotics lab at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. "There is no technology that allows a robot to do the same thing except flying, and then the amount of payload they can carry becomes a major issue."
Okay, so maybe saying they based it on Spider-Man is a bit of a stretch. This new robot's yet one more example of biometric design; where technology imitates nature. In this case, the robot makes use of artificial webbing created from thermoplastic adhesives. The adhesive- which is solid at room temperature - is heated within the robot to around 70 degrees Celsius, at which point it's pushed out of a nozzle at the front of the device.
Since at this point the plastic hasn't yet fully cooled, it's able to attach itself to any solid surface.This allows the robot virtually unprecedented freedom of motion as it uses its wheels to grip the line, travelling down at a speed of about twelve centimeters a minute (that's less than one km/hour). Okay, so...the design's not quite perfect yet, but it's definitely still in the prototype stage.
Another order of business, explained Wang, is allowing the robot to produce horizontal draglines. At the moment, it's only equipped to create vertical lines; modifying it will allow it to literally spin webs between different surfaces, meaning it could carry heavy objects across cracks, chasms, and craters.
Roderich Gross of the Natural Robotics Lab at Sheffield University, UK, says the robot could be especially useful on planets where the terrain hasn't necessarily been mapped out or modified.
"This robot could also be used on other planets where robots will encounter environments that haven't been shaped to our needs yet, so you don't know what capabilities you will need. A robot that is flexible would be ideal in this kind of environment.
Of course, such a robot would by design be limited by the planet it was set to explore. Too cold, and the line might freeze up before connecting with a surface. Too hot, and it might remain sticky, making traversal effectively impossible(though in the latter case, it's fairly unlikely they'd send a probe to a planet that hot). While I'm certain the researchers have considered this, it's definitely a weakness in an otherwise interesting and innovative design.
One of the biggest challenges facing space exploration is, and will remain, the question of how to equip probes to handle difficult terrain. More and more, scientists are turning to the natural world for answers, looking to physical designs which could be adapted for the far reaches of space. The spider bot is one representation of this trend; it's far from the first we've seen, nor will it be the last.