NASA’s four-limbed robot LEMUR has successfully climbed a cliff in Death Valley and is now inspiring future climbing robots. LEMUR has four limbs and 16 fingers equipped with hundreds of tiny fishhooks. (Image credit: NASA)
NASA has been sending robots and rovers to Mars for years, but their capability for exploration is limited, especially when it comes to hard to reach places. To tackle this, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California developed the climbing robot LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot). Originally conceived as a repair robot for the International Space Station, LEMUR is a four-limbed robot that can climb rock walls. Using its 16 fingers equipped with hundreds of tiny fishhooks and AI, it can easily scale rock walls. While the LEMUR project is now over, JPL sent to on one final field test in Death Valley, California.
The latest version of LEMUR was sent up a cliff in Death Valley earlier this year. From there, the robot’s AI picked its own path and used its limbs to scale up it while scanning for ancient fossils. LEMUR not only successfully made the climb, it also found fossilized balls of algae that used to live in the sea that was previously in the area. The fossils are around 500 million years old, showing the robot's capability to detect signs of previous life -- an important factor for exploring other planets.
Though the LEMUR project is over, it’s been an inspiration for climbing robots currently in development. JPL is also working on the Ice Worm, which was adapted from a single limb of the LEMUR. It moves across surfaces by scrunching and extending its joints like an inchworm. It climbs ice walls by drilling one end at a time into the surface. This same technique can be used to stabilize itself while taking samples. The Ice Worm also has LEMUR’s AI, which allows it to move around by learning from its previous mistakes. JPL is testing Ice Worm on glaciers in Antarctica and ice caves in Mount St. Helens. The team hopes to use the bot to explore the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
Another robot in development is the Underwater Gripper. Built for underwater exploration, it has the same fishhook grips as the LEMUR to help it traverse irregular surfaces. Currently, the robot is attached to the underwater research vessel Nautilus operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust off the coast of Hawaii. One day, it could be used for operations on an asteroid or other small bodies in the solar system. RoboSimian, originally built for DARPA's Robotics Challenge as a disaster-relief robot, is also in development. Similar to the LEMUR, it has four limbs, but has spring wheels made from music wires to help it move over uneven ground. It can walk on four legs, crawl, move like a worm, and slide on its belly like a penguin.
The LEMUR may not be heading up any missions, but it’s proving to play an important role in the future of exploration robots. Its results and technologies are being used to create more advanced robots that will hopefully be sent out to explore planets in the near future.
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