NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Carrying the NEBULA autonomy payload, Spot explores a Martian analog cave.


Interview with NASA Jet propulsion laboratory and NASA AMES


Is, or was, there life beyond Earth? For years, NASA has looked for signs of life on other planets. Now, they're one step closer. Here's how our partner NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s autonomy and AI system, NeBula, enables Spot and a team of robots to autonomously explore hundreds of meters of Martian-like caves with no prior information about the map or features of the environment.


Ali Agha, Project Lead, JPL NeBula Autonomy and AI, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Caves are really important for NASA because they might be the key to find an answer for humanity's longstanding question of if there is or was life in other planets. In today's demonstration, our main success metric is if a team of robots can autonomously explore hundreds of meters into a Martian analogue cave. 

When integrating autonomy and AI on a physical robot, it's really important that the robot supports the requirements of stability over difficult terrain. At the same time, it's really important that the robot is capable of carrying enough science instruments while it has necessary endurance and speed. Boston Dynamics' Spot robot is one of the few that satisfies these requirements simultaneously. 



Benjamin Morrell, Deputy Lead, JPL NeBula Autonomy and AI, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Today, first thing we're doing is setting up a base station. Then Spot, our robot, enters the cave. Very next step is let's get communications so Spot can keep talking to the base station. And then the robot explores by itself autonomously. As it does, it sends back information which is a 3D map which we see on the base station. And then if it detects things that are scientifically interesting, that may be indicative of biofilm, it sends those images and its location in the map back to the operator. And here is where the team of robots comes in. 

Robot number two has a robotic arm. And that robotic arm is a really capable device to get very close to the wall that can allow us to get more information. If it still looks like it might be some type of biosignature, it could take out a swab and take a detailed sample, and put that in an instrument to take analysis of the chemical composition. Additionally, it could shine us a certain type of light that could assist our robot number three. 

And robot number three can come in with a more advanced camera that can zoom very close, that can see in different spectrums. We have these multiple mobile robots that can carry different instruments, as opposed to one big robot that's going to have trouble traversing in this terrain. 


Amanda Bouman, Graduate Student, Global Planning Team, Caltech: While we were watching Spot explore autonomously, I think I was really shocked it was able to get down some of these smaller branches. Traditional robots, such as wheeled or tracked, it's impossible for them to get where we need them to go. 

Jennifer Blank, Lead Scientist, Braille Project, NASA Ames: What's so exciting about Spot is how flexible it is and how maneuverable it is. I can envision scenarios where different Spots have their own assigned roles and their own assigned specialties. It opens up so many possibilities for how you could deploy it on another planet. 

“What's so exciting about Spot is how flexible it is and how maneuverable it is. I can envision scenarios where different Spots have their own assigned roles and their own assigned specialties.”

- Jennifer Blank, Lead Scientist, Braille Project, NASA Ames


Benjamin Morrell: This technology is exciting for exploring other underground environments if it's something too dangerous for people to do. This capability with the robots to go in exploring on an environment can also be a great technology for search and rescue. 

Ali Agha: This demonstration has been a huge success for us. The integration of our NeBula autonomy and AI solution with this capable Boston Dynamic Spot robot would help us one day to explore actual caves on other planets. 


Learn more about NeBula, NASA JPL's autonomy and AI system:

Learn more about NASA's BRAILLE Project, looking for life in lava caves on Earth:


Next for You


Kidd creek Mine

Spot performs inspection in the Kidd Creek Mine, enabling operators to keep their distance from hazards.

Learn More



Want to learn how Spot customers are developing tailor-made integrations to address unique business challenges? See firsthand how Spot's API enables users to add preferred cameras and sensors, autonomously trigger sensors and send data to analysis software, create controls and autonomy systems, and more.

Watch Now