Written by Jonathan O’Callaghan
In the past, exploring the lunar surface was a mission carried out by rovers and humans, but one company is proposing a rather radical alternative that would see an ape-like robot walk across the Moon on all fours.
The German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) and the University of Bremen have put together a proptype four-legged robo-ape, known as the iStruct Demonstrator, that employs several smart innovations that will help it traverse the Moon’s hills and craters. The benefits of such a proposal largely centre around its manoeuvrability – where a rover may struggle with the slope of a crater or rocks strewn across the ground, a robo-ape could clamber up a slope on all fours or carefully pick its way over rocks.
Weighing in at 18 kilograms (40 pounds) and with dimensions of 66 x 43 x 75 centimetres (26 x 13 x 30 inches), the robo-ape is remarkably similar in both size and stature to real apes, which are well known for their versatility in many environments. Another benefit of the design is that the robot could stand on its hind legs while its hands are used for other purposes, such as collecting and studying samples from the surrounding environment.
Inside this robotic ape are 43 sensors that can detect the force pressed upon them when it walks, enabling it to remain stable. Six sensors on exposed sections of the ape are used for collision detection, distance sensors tell the ape how far away the ground is while it walks, and a three-axis accelerometer orientates the feet so that steps are taken according to the slope of the ground below.
The University of Bremen and DFKI partnership have also incorporated something called a multi-locomotion system, which replaces an otherwise solid and inflexible connection between either end of the iStruct Demonstrator’s body, with an actuated spinal column. From this flexible core, a six-axis force/torque sensor makes sure the ape doesn’t topple over while walking or performing more-complicated actions when moving around on all four limbs.
All of this makes for an incredibly agile and manoeuvrable robot. Gone would be the slow progress made by a rover as the ground ahead is analysed before it trundles on. Instead, robo-apes could adeptly pick their way across treacherous terrain to perform key science in alien locales.
While the iStruct Demonstrator is just a prototype for future innovative robot explorers, it’s possible that a descendant of this robo-ape could one day explore of the Moon or even worlds further afield. Places that could prove too dangerous or simply too expensive to send a manned mission could be probed by this relatively cheap piece of technology. With subsequent iterations and improvements, descendants of the iStruct could remain on the far side of the Moon or even go to Mars for a mission with an extended life, reacting autonomously to its environment, collecting data and paving the way for a future manned mission.
Image Credit: DFKI