NASA Develops Volcano-Exploring Robots

The small bots will help researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory map fissures and learn more about how eruptions occur.

Volcanoes offer a number of roadblocks to exploration: Face-melting heat, daunting terrain and deep crevices. But scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab have designed two wall-climbing robots that can descend into fissures in volcanoes to better understand how they erupt.

Carolyn Parcheta, a NASA postdoctoral fellow, is working with JPL robotics researcher Aaron Parness to map a volcanic conduit system in Hawaii.

"We don't know exactly how volcanoes erupt," Parcheta said in a statement. "We have models but they are all very, very simplified. This project aims to help make those models more realistic."

Parcheta and her colleagues spun off what they call their VolcanoBots from an existing robot -- the Durable Reconnaissance and Observation Platform (DROP).

"We took that concept and redesigned it to work inside a volcano," Parcheta said.

The research could be used to explore the active and dormant volcanoes on other planets.

"In the last few years, NASA spacecraft have sent back incredible pictures of caves, fissures and what look like volcanic vents on Mars and the moon," said JPL robotics researcher Aaron Parness. "We're trying to bridge that gap using volcanoes here on Earth for practice."

VolcanoBot 1 -- shown here in a tube formed by lava -- explored the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii in May 2014. The robot is enabling researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to put together a 3-D map of the fissure.