NASA recently selected Deep Ocean Engineering, Inc. (DOE) in San Leandro, Ca., as the recipient of a Phase II contract in its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. The award has a total value of $600,000 and duration of 24 months. The project involves research and development of a versatile apparatus and method for remote robot mobility. Bruce Caldwell
, DOE’s Director of Engineering, is the project’s Principal Investigator. Key consultants include Dr. Phil Ballou at Ocean Systems Inc., and Edge Innovations, both located in Alameda, Ca.
Robotics intended for exploration of extremely remote and harsh environments must be extraordinarily versatile as well as robust. They must be able to perform in and adapt to unknown and highly variable physical surroundings. Robots with tracks, wheels or articulating legs can provide effective mobility on certain kinds of terrain. However, these same robots would likely fail if their mission requirements included roving over roughly contoured surfaces or in media such as water, sand, slush, or ice.
In Phase I, Deep Ocean Engineering engineers developed a concept for a versatile and robust locomotion methodology based on snake and worm morphologies. This “super snake” has the ability to transition seamlessly from one environment to another, such as land to water to burrowing into soft sediment, an ability that is rare in nature, and practically nonexistent in robotics.
In Phase II, DOE will construct a working prototype, and conduct a series of experiments, both in the lab and in the field, toward developing algorithms for locomotion. Field experiments will include sites such as San Francisco Bay, Mono Lake, and a desert environment such as Death Valley. At the end of Phase II, the prototype equipment will be available for future NASA projects, such as scientific research in the Dry Valley lakes of Antarctica, and experiments to evaluate concepts for exploration of Mars and Europa.