It’s able to climb cliff faces, handle harsh and unusual atmospheres and ignore bullets and explosions. It can address steep cliff faces on earth or other planets — it is indifferent to the challenge and relentless.
Presenting LEMUR, NASA’s climbing robot, or Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is in the business of designing sensor platforms for harsh and unusual environments, but LEMUR is quite different from ordinary satellite platforms.
According to a report in C4ISRNet, LEMUR is a four-legged machine with a total of 64 robotic fingers, each with fish-hook claws.
Guided by AI, with each step up a cliff face LEMUR gets better at all subsequent steps up cliff faces — a slow and specialized mission. It also doesn’t get tired or winded, as it is powered to withstand the harshest of worlds.
LEMUR would recharge its batteries via solar panels, giving it the freedom to roam and search for evidence of life.
As a scientific instrument with high-tech sensors, it is built to scan features of those cliff faces for new discoveries, such as finding fossilized algae on a rock wall in Death Valley.
The latter fossils are about 500 million years old, proving the LEMUR’s ability to detect signs of previous life — a crucial capability for the exploration of other planets.
The ability to look for bio-signatures would also come in very handy on planets like Mars, where sedimentary deposits in ancient lakes beds could hold evidence of past life.
This is currently what the Curiosity rover is doing on Mount Sharp in the Mars’ Gale Crater.
Humans have scaled walls and climbed cliffs for centuries, but military analysts of today have different reasons for building climbing robots.
The simplest use case is as a guide for humans, with the robot finding a useful path without risking life or limb. This is especially true in scenarios where an adversary is expecting an attack to come from level ground or the air.
Potentially, LEMUR-like robots would be capable of adapting to dangerous ice surfaces as well.
Adapted from a single limb of LEMUR, JPL’s “Ice Worm” moves by scrunching and extending its joints like an inchworm.
The robot climbs ice walls by drilling one end at a time into the hard surface. It can use the same technique to stabilize itself while taking scientific samples, even on a precipice.
Itt also has LEMUR’s AI, enabling it to navigate by learning from past mistakes. To hone its technical skills, Ice Worm has been tested on glaciers in Antarctica and ice caves on Mount St. Helens so that it can one day contribute to science on Earth and more distant worlds.
Ice Worm is part of a generation of projects being developed to explore the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, which may have oceans under their frozen crusts.
In the realm of micro-climbers, JPL’s Tiny Climbers are wheeled vehicles small enough to fit in a coat pocket but strong enough to scale walls and survive falls up to 9 feet (3 meters).
Developed by JPL for the military, some micro-climbers use LEMUR’s fishhook grippers to cling to rough surfaces, like boulders and cave walls. Others can scale smooth surfaces, using technology inspired by a gecko’s sticky feet.
The gecko, like the lizard it’s named for, relies on microscopic angled hairs that generate van der Waals forces — atomic forces that cause “stickiness” if both objects are in close proximity.
Enhancing this gecko-like stickiness, the robots’ hybrid wheels also use an electrical charge to cling to walls (the same thing that makes your hair stick to a balloon after you rub it on your head), even in zero gravity.
Micro-climbers with this adhesive or gripping technology could repair future spacecraft or explore hard-to-reach spots on the Moon, Mars and beyond.