New Snake-Like Robot Can Go Where No Robot Has Gone Before

The EELS was inspired by Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.

Jun 23, 2023


Space, Innovation
New Snake-Like Robot Can Go Where No Robot Has Gone Before | The EELS was inspired by Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.

It’s an eel, it’s a snake,  it’s a robot!  NASA is in the process of developing a new type of robot that can manage all types of terrain, including icy and watery ones.

Most people associate NASA with trips to the moon, and cute Mars rovers like Curiosity. Now you can add an eel to the roster of NASA creations to anthropomorphize. Weighing in at 220 pounds, and about 16 feet long, according to CBS News, the EELS – short for Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor – does indeed look like a long snake or eel 

Autonomous and Self-Propelling
The motivation for creating a long, thin, slithering robot, according to a press release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, was the fact that EELS’s target destinations are very far away and have very difficult terrains. NASA needed to find a way to produce a robot that was both autonomous and able to maneuver an unknown and treacherous landscape. 

EELS team leader, Dr. Matthew Robinson, said in the press releaseL “It has the capability to go to locations where other robots can’t go. [Even] though some robots are better at one particular type of terrain or other, the idea for EELS is the ability to do it all. When you’re going places where you don’t know what you’ll find, you want to send a versatile, risk-aware robot that’s prepared for uncertainty – and can make decisions on its own.”

So, how does it work? EELS is able to create a 3D map of the space around it using cameras and lidar (like radar, but with lasers). With this map, the robot is then directed by a navigation algorithm to find the safest way to maneuver in a given terrain. Its snake-like body will eventually be fitted by 48 little motors, called actuators, that will help the robot twist, turn, and climb through whatever terrain it finds itself in.

Inspired by one of Saturn’s moons
EELS was inspired by the desire to look for life on one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, because the surface of the moon is just ice. But under the surface it is covered in water according to samples that were taken by NASA’s Cassini mission. It is these types of difficult terrains that NASA eventually hopes to explore. 

The EELS has been tested in the field on the Athabasca Glacier in Canada’s Jasper National Park; it is still under development, CBS News reports. The hope is to reach a working prototype by autumn of 2024. 

EELS is a wonder of innovation, but it is also an example of the ways in which innovators can look to nature for inspiration and insight

Meet the World’s First ‘Parastronaut’
NASA is Landing the First Woman on the Moon
NASA Helicopter Will Be First to Take Flight on Mars

Tiki is a freelance writer, editor, and translator with a passion for writing stories. She believes in taking small actions to positively impact the world. She spends her free time reading, baking, creating art, and walking her rescue dog.