Lemurs set for space work

January 18, 2002

In 1961, a chimpanzee called Enos was the first primate to orbit the earth.

Some 40 years later, a team of scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology is preparing to launch a Lemur.

But this is no ordinary simian. Described by team leader Brett Kennedy as "a robotic instantiation of a six-limbed primate with Swiss Army knife tendencies", the Legged Excursion Mechanical Utility Rover is part of the "most complex robotics project outside a car plant".

There are US plans to build space stations 15km long that pick up sunshine and beam it directly to earth, where it can be used as electrical power. The Lemurs would be part of a colony of hundreds of battery-powered robots that would assemble and maintain the stations.

"The robots would live and die in space, repairing themselves and each other," Dr Kennedy said.

Lemurs, at about the size of a shoebox and weighing less than 5kg, differ from the current generation of robots in two ways. Their limbs serve as both arms and legs - and because they can be used for manipulation and mobility, the robot is lighter and more efficient. They will also have interchangeable toolsets, snapping tools into junctions below their knee joints.

The number of legs is somewhat arbitrary: three points of contact are needed to walk along surfaces, a further two limbs are needed to perform tasks. The Caltech team decided to add a sixth for symmetry.

Lemurs may be able to inspect objects autonomously, decide what is wrong, select the correct tools and perform the repairs. And the team hopes to develop the software and circuitry to enable multiple robots to work together.

On earth, the robots are unlikely to replace humans because they are so expensive. But Dr Kennedy's team wants to adapt Lemurs to work in places people cannot go, for example, climbing through rubble to look for trapped people.

The research was published in the journal Autonomous Robots in November.

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