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Sticky feet could help robots land on asteroids

Last Updated: Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - 16:37

Washington: A new biologically inspired robot could one day crawl over the surface of an asteroid or Mars and gather samples for study using lots of tiny, mechanical “toes.”

Asteroids have a weak gravitional pull, which makes it difficult for a robot probe to drive or walk across the rock.

Now, a robotics researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has created super-gripping feet that could secure a robot and make asteriod mining possible.

Aaron Parness recently presented his gripper at the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) annual robotics conference, IEEE`s Spectrum magazine reported.

NASA and other countries` space agencies have sent several missions to observe asteroids. So far, however, NASA spacecraft haven`t directly gathered samples from an asteroid.

Parness` robotic feet would allow asteroid probes to cling to the surface of even small asteroids, whose weaker gravitational pull might put a traditional rolling or walking probe at risk of “accidentally jettisoning itself into space,” the Discovery News quoted Parness as writing in a paper.

A future Mars or other planetary mission might also use a sticky-footed robot to scale cliffs, Parness added.

One of the robotic feet Parness created consists of 16 fat, stubby toes arranged in a circle. Each toe has 12 “microspines,” tiny steel hooks attached to a flexible suspension system. When the foot drags its microspines over the slightly rough surface of a rock, the hooks can attach to small dips or protrusions on the rock surface.

Parness` tests showed his robotic feet could resist more than 100 Newtons, a unit of force. They could probably resist more, he wrote, but right now, the test consists of having someone use a robot foot to pick rocks up from the ground, so he`s limited by the strongest person he can recruit to help. He`s working on creating a machine to test heavier rocks, he wrote.

He also found the foot can hold a drill to a basalt rock, boring out a sample half an inch (12 millimeters) in diameter which, during a mission, a probe could analyze or send back to Earth. The gripping drill works in several positions, including upside down and sticking straight out the side of the rock.


First Published: Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - 16:37
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