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Meet NASA’s climbing robots, able to move through the slipperiest environments

RoboSimian can walk on four legs, crawl, move like an inchworm and slide on its belly. In this photo, it stands on the Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley, California, for field testing with engineer Brendan Chamberlain-Simon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it comes to exploring far off planets, robots need to be able to tackle all sorts of challenges, so NASA has been working on a series of climbing robots to take on different tasks in inhospitable environments.

First up is LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot) which can climb rock walls using hundreds of fishhooks in its fingers. It uses A.I. to navigate around obstacles that it cannot climb, and is one of NASA’s first generation of climbing robots. It was developed to perform repair tasks aboard the International Space Station, and below you can see it in a field test in Death Valley, California.

The climbing robot LEMUR rests after scaling a cliff in Death Valley, California. The robot uses special gripping technology that has helped lead to a series of new, off-roading robots that can explore other worlds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The LEMUR project has concluded now, but it has inspired a range of other climbing robots as well. The idea of fishhooks for climbing was adapted into a smaller gecko-style robot which climbs up walls using fishhooks in its feet.

Then there’s the somewhat terrifying-looking Ice Worm, which was adapted from one of LEMUR’s limbs. The Ice Worm crawls slowly along slippery, icy surfaces by compacting its body before extending forward, just like an inchworm. It can even climb up inclined icy surfaces by drilling one end of itself into the ice, then inching the other end forward and drilling again. This is useful for collecting samples from icy environments as it is very stable and won’t slide around when collecting material.

NASA Climbing Robot Scales Cliffs and Looks for Life

There’s also RoboSimian, shown in the picture at the top, which was designed to aid in disaster scenarios. Now it has been adapted for icy environments as well. It is similar in structure to LEMUR, but instead of grippy feet, it has springy wheels made from piano wire. This makes the wheels flexible, which means it can roll over uneven ground. It’s being tested for eventual deployment to icy off-world locations like Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that has both ice and silt on the surface.

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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