A robotic mountaineer that could one day climb cliffs on Mars and even help rescue earthquake victims has taken its first steps.

The spider-like robot, called Lemur, was developed by engineers at Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, as a prototype for a fully autonomous rock climber. It can already follow a human climber up an irregular surface without any guidance from a controller. And it has a spookily human gait.

JPL is better known for its twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which have been roaming the Red Planet since January. The rovers have transmitted images of the planet’s surface and gleaned much information from soil and rock samples.

But Tim Bretl, the lead engineer on the project at Stanford’s robotics laboratory, says Lemur’s technology could take planetary exploration to another level. “Scientists would really like robots on Mars to be able to access the sides of cliffs to look at the geology,” he says. “This could be a way to get there.” He will reveal the technology next week at a symposium on experimental robotics in Singapore.

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