Robotic ‘EELS’ Ready For Tunnel Warfare (Updated)

By Laura Heckmann

NASA/JPL-CalTech illustration

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — A snake-like robot may provide the military with technology that could alter the nature of tunnel warfare.

Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor — or EELS — is a mobile exploration tool designed to scout extreme terrain unreachable by most ground robots. EELS is designed to traverse water, sand, rock and ice, said Masahiro Ono, principal investigator for the EELS project, located at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

While the robot was conceived to explore extraterrestrial worlds, the military could find it useful because “you never know what the environments are” or “what kind of mobility is optimal,” Ono said on the sidelines of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Forum in National Harbor, Maryland.

It’s designed for terrain inaccessible by tracked or wheeled ground robots, he added.

The platform consists of multiple, identical segments linked together to create a mobile, sidewinding snake driven by propulsion mechanisms and communication links. The segments working in unison act as tracks, with gripping mechanisms that also allow it to function underwater.

Augmented reality on display at the conference sent the EELS system snaking across the surface of a Mars-like planet, slinking through treacherous crevices of ice-laden tunnels and even entering the ocean. As development progresses, it may soon include the caves and tunnels that have been used for centuries in tunnel warfare, from storing nuclear weapons to undermining fortifications and giving shelter to enemies.

The Modern War Institute at West Point published the article in 2019, “My Underground Warfare Wishlist.” Better maneuverability in underground cavities topped the list.

Most major urban areas include an entire world underground, the article stated, including transportation and telecommunication tunnels. As technology continues to advance, adaptability and maneuverability underground will become increasingly relevant — as could the EELS system.

The EELS robot will undergo extensive lab and field tests in terrestrial environments by the end of 2024, according to JPL.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the AR display represented Mars, and misattributed a comment to NASA rather than JPL.

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Robotics

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