These Robotic Apes Could be Headed for the Moon

In the future, will mechanical chimpanzees mine for fuel in space?

Image courtesy of Daniel Kühn, DFKI

If like me, you see stories about sending robots into outer space and think to yourself, “needs more apes,” Charlie the moon-exploring robo-chimp should be just the thing to make your day. CNN reports that the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (known as DFKI in Germany) has modeled a robot design on the chimpanzee, betting that imitating the animal’s versatile range of movements will prove ideal for the wide range of tasks required on an unmanned lunar mission. The prototype is technically called the iStruct Demonstrator, but the scientists have nicknamed it “Charlie,” and are testing out its moon skills on artificial lunar craters in a lab.

“We chose the ape because it allows us to study several locomotion modes,” Daniel Kuhn, a DFKI researcher, told CNN. “For example, they have quite good quadrupedal walking abilities but they can also perform stand- up motion and walk on two legs—their ability to do this is greater than other animals. This change in posture and walking form interested us.”

Charlie is also unique for its “actuated spine,” which mirrors the backbone of a real ape, allowing the bot, per Kuhn, to require “much less activation for the knee.”

“The knee can be much lower if we use the spine and it needs less force to move the robot,” he told CNN.

And if “robotic apes in space” wasn’t a cool enough concept for you already, designs like this mechanical animal could one day be used for extracting rare gases from moon mines. CNN writes:

With renewed interest in moon exploration—in particular the remote possibility that deposits of helium-3, believed to be in greater concentration on the moon, could one day power nuclear fusion power plants on Earth—robots might be the ideal solution, especially to keep the costs down.