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To boldly go: Meet the extreme robot explorers

How can we explore the Universe without getting hurt? Meet the robots who could one day be looking for life on other planets.

Indiana Jones would not have to come face-to-face with quite so many snakes if he’d been around today. Instead, he could have borrowed a robot from his local science lab and gone searching for the holy grail, without even having to use his whip.

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Around the globe, many robot explorers are being developed to explore the deepest seafloor and the darkest cave, with the hope that one day they can be used to look for rare minerals and signs of life on other planets.

There are also many companies who have produced robots that can do tasks that are dangerous for us humans, such as studying miles of underwater pipes looking for leaks. Robots are also much better at withstanding the harshest of environments, and won’t ever complain about being too cold.

From agile robot dogs to large submersibles, we take a look through some of the many robot explorers that could one day boldly go where no human really wants to. Here are some of our favourite robot explorers:

Climbing robot – NASA

LEMUR 3 belongs to a new generation of robots being built at JPL that can crawl, walk and even climb rock walls. This robot was designed to operate in extreme terrains, demonstrating the applicability of its systems for possible missions to Mars, the Moon. Photo by NASA/JPL
LEMUR 3 is a free climbing robot being built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and is able to crawl, walk and even climb rock walls. This robot was designed to operate in extreme terrains, demonstrating the applicability of its systems for possible missions to Mars and the Moon. Photo by NASA/JPL

Frozen lake explorer – NASA

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Photo By NASA/JPL
BRUIE (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration) is an underwater rover prototype by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The rover began testing in the Arctic in 2015 and it is meant to eventually explore the interior ocean of water worlds in the Solar System. BRUIE is buoyant and uses its two wheels to roll along beneath the ice and look for life.
BRUIE (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration) is an underwater rover prototype being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The rover began testing in the Arctic in 2015 and it is designed to explore the interior ocean of water worlds in the Solar System, such as the underground oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Photo by NASA/JPL

Cave diver – UNEXIMIN

The UX-1A diver robot is pictured during a field test in Molnar Janos Cave in Budapest, Hungary, 03 July 2019. The device was developed for underwater exploration in flooded mines by an international team led by the University of Miskolc in the scope of the EU-funded UNEXIMIN (Underwater Explorer for flooded Mines) Horizont 2020 project. The submerging robot collects geological data from water-filled cavities, and will be deployed in search operations for cave and mine accidents. By: Balazs Mohai/EPA-EFE/ShutterstockThe UX-1A diver robot is pictured during a field test in Molnar Janos Cave in Budapest, Hungary, 03 July 2019. The device was developed for underwater exploration in flooded mines by an international team led by the University of Miskolc in the scope of the EU-funded UNEXIMIN (Underwater Explorer for flooded Mines) Horizont 2020 project. The submerging robot collects geological data from water-filled cavities, and will be deployed in search operations for cave and mine accidents. Cave-searching diving robot tested in Hungary, Budapest - 03 Jul 2019. Photo by Balazs Mohai/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Photo by Balazs Mohai/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The UX-1A diver robot is pictured during a field test in Molnar Janos Cave in Budapest, Hungary, 3 July 2019. The device was developed for underwater exploration in flooded mines by an international team led by the University of Miskolc as part of the EU-funded UNEXIMIN (Underwater Explorer for flooded Mines) Horizon 2020 project. The submerging robot collects geological data from water-filled cavities, and will be deployed in search operations for cave and mine accidents. Photo by Balazs Mohai/EPA-EFE/ShutterstockTeam members of the EU-funded UNEXIMIN (Underwater Explorer for flooded Mines) Horizont 2020 project conduct a field test on the UX-1A diver robot in Molnar Janos Cave in Budapest, Hungary, 03 July 2019. The device was developed for underwater exploration in flooded mines by an international team led by the University of Miskolc. The submerging robot collects geological data from water-filled cavities, and will be deployed in search operations for cave and mine accidents. Cave-searching diving robot tested in Hungary, Budapest - 03 Jul 2019
The UX-1A diver robot is pictured during a field test in Molnar Janos Cave in Budapest, Hungary, 3 July 2019. The device was developed for underwater exploration in flooded mines by an international team led by the University of Miskolc as part of the EU-funded UNEXIMIN (Underwater Explorer for flooded Mines) Horizon 2020 project. The submerging robot collects geological data from water-filled cavities, and will be deployed in search operations for cave and mine accidents. Photo by Balazs Mohai/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Terrain explorer – NASA

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Photo by NASA/JPL
This four-legged explorer prototype combines autonomy
This four-legged explorer prototype combines autonomy “smarts” provided by JPL with a doglike walker called NeBula-SPOT, built by Boston Dynamics. Subterranean Spot was developed in response to the Subterranean Challenge, a contest sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). NeBula SPOT was designed to demonstrate the autonomy needed to navigate extreme environments without human guidance or access to GPS, and could be used to explore caves or potentially other planetary surfaces. Photo by NASA/JPL

Take a look at some of our other image galleries:

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Autonomous underwater vehicle – RUBIN

VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA - MAY 23, 2020: The autonomous unmanned deep-sea submersible Vityaz-D is seen in the port of Vladivostok on Russia's Pacific coast. Vityaz-D is the world's first unmanned submersible to descend into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. The submersible reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench on 8 May 2020, at 22.34 Moscow time. Designed by the St Petersburg-based design bureau TsKB Rubin, Vityaz-D can dive to a depth of up to 12km and overcome obstacles and find its way out of caves and trenches using artificial intelligence. Yuri Smityuk/TASS (Photo by Yuri SmityukTASS via Getty Images)
The autonomous uncrewed deep-sea submersible Vityaz-D is seen in the port of Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast. Vityaz-D is the world’s first uncrewed submersible to descend into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. The submersible reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench on 8 May 2020. Designed by the St Petersburg-based design bureau TsKB Rubin, Vityaz-D can dive to a depth of up to 12km and overcome obstacles and find its way out of caves and trenches using artificial intelligence. Photo by Yuri Smityuk/TASS/Getty Images

Cave explorer – NASA

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Photo by NASA/JPL
NASA's robotics team drives the test rover, CaveR, into Valentine Cave at Lava Beds National Monument. The science instruments, visible in the box-like structure pointing to one wall of the cave, will begin testing further downstream in the cave. One of the CaveR engineers is perched on a lava ledge, a marker of one of the lava flows in the cave. Photo by NASA/JPL
NASA’s robotics team drives the test rover, CaveR, into Valentine Cave at Lava Beds National Monument, California, USA. The science instruments, visible in the box-like structure pointing to one wall of the cave, will begin testing further downstream in the cave. One of the CaveR engineers is perched on a lava ledge, a marker of one of the lava flows in the cave. Photo by NASA/JPL

Autonomous diver – Houston Mechatronics

Photo by Ken Kiefer/Houston Mechatronics
The Aquanaut is an uncrewed underwater vehicle capable of carrying out complex tasks. It has been designed for commercial use to inspect subsea oil and gas pipes, and is capable of using tools. This means that these tasks can be done remotely, without putting human life in danger. It is pictured here undergoing testing at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas, USA. Photo by Ken Kiefer

Flying cave drone – NASA

Rollocopter, a hybrid aerial and terrestrial platform, uses a quadrotor system to fly or roll along on two passive wheels. This design gives the robot greater range than aerial-only quadrotors and eliminates obstacle-avoidance issues associated with ground-only robots. When Rollocopter encounters an obstacle, it can simply fly over it. To fly this robot requires a celestial body with an atmosphere and could be used to explore subterranean caves other worlds. Photo by NASA/JPL
Rollocopter is a hybrid aerial and terrestrial drone that uses a four-rotor system to fly or roll along on two passive wheels. This design, being developed by NASA’s Costar team, gives the robot a large range and eliminates obstacle-avoidance issues associated with ground-only robots. When Rollocopter encounters an obstacle, it can simply fly over it. To fly, this robot requires a celestial body with an atmosphere and could be used to explore subterranean caves other worlds. Photo by NASA/JPL