Astronauts on the International Space Station might soon be getting help from a swarm of snakebots, if Norwegian engineers get their way.
Scientists at SINTEF, an industrial and technical research organisation based in Trondheim, are investigating whether snake-shaped robots could help carry out maintenance work on the ISS, as well as further afield.
"It's possible that a robot could carry out much of the routine inspection and maintenance work", Aksel Transeth at SINTEF. "The experiments are stacked in the shelf sections, behind which corrosion can occur. To find this out, inspections have to be made. A snake robot could creep behind the sections, carry out an inspection, and perhaps even perform small maintenance tasks."
"More ambitious applications include potential activities on comets and the Moon", he added. Over the last few years, while Nasa and SpaceX have been focused on Mars, the European Space Agency has been building up plans for a "Moon village" that could serve as a stepping stone to more distant worlds.
The most likely place for that village, to protect settlers from cosmic radiation and meteorites, is in the network of lava tubes that lie below the Lunar surface. But those tunnels will need to be explored before we can settle them, and Transeth hopes that this is where snakebots can play a role.
The important thing for all of these tasks is to figure out how to design a robot that can navigate in microgravity. "We believe that we can design a robot that can hold on, roll itself up and then extend its body in order to reach new contact points", explained Transeth.
"Moreover, we believe that it can creep in among equipment components on the ISS and use equipment surfaces to gain traction in order to keep moving forward – much in the same way as real snakes do in the wild."
"We want to find out what specifications a snake robot system requires."