Can snake-like robots do a better job exploring Mars than the wheeled rovers humans have previously sent to the red planet? That's the working theory of researchers at the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research (SINTEF), who believe that such a bot could help tackle the primary challenge in navigating Mars: maneuverability. A snake robot could slither into tight, confined areas that a larger rover simply wouldn't be able to access, they say. This would allow scientists to collect invaluable samples from regions of Mars that have previously been difficult or impossible to reach.
Of course, the tiny size of such a robot presents other hurdles, and SINTEF's researchers think the ideal solution would pair a snake robot with a more traditional rover that could traverse large distances more efficiently. "One option is to make the robot into one of the vehicle's arms, with the ability to disconnect and reconnect itself, so that it can be lowered to the ground, where it can crawl about independently," says researcher Aksel Transeth. This approach would carry another potential benefit; the snake robot could potentially help free a rover if it were to become stuck on the Mars surface — as Spirit did in 2009.
Another scenario could see the snake-like bot situated underneath or on top of the rover. That would require scientists to build in a "hoisting" mechanism so the rover could retrieve its companion robot. The research is extremely early; SINTEF is currently conducting a feasibility study for the European Space Agency. They've promised to deliver a more thorough report in December that outlines other challenges and "potential snags." And there are many. Speaking to ABC News, robotics professor Howie Choset said, "There are a lot of challenges that we still have to address. We're still having a hard time figuring out how to make these robots work in bumpy and highly confined spaces here on Earth." NASA plans to send its next rover to Mars in 2020.