How Insect-Inspired Legs Could Help Robots Walk on Asteroids

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James Cameron created a Titanic-sized stir when he invested in Planetary Resources Inc., an asteroid mining operation co-chaired by personal spaceflight pioneers Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson. While Planetary Resources might have an abundance of money (the company also counts Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt as investors) and imagination, the actual technology to mine asteroids doesn’t exist… yet.

Enter the humble housefly. The reason it can climb vertically is because it has tiny claw-like structures at the end of its legs that grip irregularities in the wall that are too small for us to see. The same principle could prove very useful for exploring small bodies in space that are short on gravity.

(MORE: What Will NASA’s Rover of the Future Look Like?)

“Crawling around on an asteroid or comet is more like climbing than it is walking because if you flip over, you fall off the asteroid and float away,” says Aaron Parness of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The idea is to equip a robot with four pairs of legs, each equipped with an “omni-directional anchoring mechanism.” Think of it as a robotic version of an insect leg. Each one is equipped with 750 microspines, all with their own suspension structure so they can be dragged across surfaces until their hooks snag tiny irregularities in a rocky surface.

The robot would walk by moving one leg at a time while the other three are firmly set. The anchor is so strong that it can withstand the force exerted by an attached drill, making the technology perfect for obtaining core samples — both for NASA research purposes and to search asteroids for valuable minerals that a company like Planetary Resources might be interested in.

The technology could also help scientists study Mars.

“Some of the most interesting sites that we’ve seen from orbit have been the crater walls,” says Parness. “The rovers that we have up there and the ones that we are sending right now, they are not going to be able to access those kind of samples.”

Climbing rovers could also potentially explore lava tubes, taking samples deep underground where radiation isn’t as likely to have erased signs of past life. Not that the omni-directional anchor’s usefulness is limited to space; Parness also hopes to help out biologists in the Mojave Desert and Hawaii who need help collecting microbial samples from caves that are too treacherous for them to climb down into themselves.

Also interested in utilizing microspines: hardcore rock climbers, who could use them to climb up cliffs like Spiderman. Technically feasible, yes, but it’s unlikely the technology would ever be cheap enough for recreational use. Another wild idea is to use the anchors to tow small asteroids in between the Earth and the Moon, making it easier for us to mine their minerals.

Sound a little too much like science fiction? Parness has already built four legs and is just trying to figure out how to coordinate them with JPL’s 17.6-pound Lemur lib  robot. It might take a while before it’s in space, let alone hauling asteroids through the solar system, but a prototype could be climbing up a wall on Earth by as early as this summer.

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