Lizard-like robot could save astronauts from dangerous spacewalks

European Space Agency, university work on robots that could work on spacecraft

Lizard-like robots with sticky feet may one day work on spacecraft like the International Space Station, saving astronauts from making as many dangerous spacewalks.

Researchers from the European Space Agency and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia have been working to develop a robot sticky enough to cling safely to the outside of a spacecraft while also remaining mobile.

At this point, the robot, dubbed Abigaille, is able to climb walls on Earth.

Scientists at Simon Fraser University and the European Space Agency are working to build a gecko-like robot that can crawl around the outside of spacecraft, doing repairs and maintenance.

"This approach is an example of 'biomimicry,' taking engineering solutions from the natural world," said Michael Henrey, a graduate student in engineering at Simon Fraser and a researcher on the project. "Our Abigaille climbing robot is therefore quite dexterous, with six legs each having four degrees of freedom [or joints], so it should be able to handle environments that a wheeled robot could not."

He added that the robot can transition from a vertical position to horizontal, which could be useful for navigating around the surface of a satellite or maneuvering around obstacles.

For the lizard-like robot, the European Space Agency said it's taking a lesson from the hairs on the bottom of the gecko's feet that enable it to stick to surfaces.

"We've borrowed techniques from the microelectronics industry to make our own footpad terminators," Henrey said in a statement. "Technical limitations mean these are around 100 times larger than a gecko's hairs, but they are sufficient to support our robot's weight."

The agency has tested the robot to see if it could work in the rigors of a space environment.

"The reason we're interested in dry adhesives is that other adhesive methods wouldn't suit the space environment," said Henrey. "Scotch, duct or pressure-sensitive tape would collect dust, reducing their stickiness over time... Velcro requires a mating surface, and broken hooks could contaminate the robot's working environment. Magnets can't stick to composites, for example, and magnetic fields might affect sensitive instruments."

It's not uncommon for robotics researchers to build machines based on animals or even insects. In November, scientists at New York University said they had built a small, flying robot to move like the boneless, pulsating, water-dwelling jellyfish.

Last spring, Harvard University researchers announced that they had built an insect-like robot that flies by flapping its wings. The robot is so small it has about 1/30th the weight of a U.S. penny.

In the fall of 2012, scientists at the University of Sheffield and the University of Sussex in England teamed up to study the brains of honey bees in an attempt to build an autonomous flying robot.

This article, Lizard-like space robot could save astronauts from spacewalks, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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