Choosing materials for robots

Activity for students aged 11-14 that takes about 60 minutes of class time


Type: Main
Time: 60mins
Subjects: Design & Technology
Key words: enquiry; ExoMars programme; investigation; robot; material design; properties; vehicle; climate

The ESA ExoMars programme is a topical use of engineering strategies in robotics and mechanical design. Students are presented with an unusual landscape and environment to investigate and are challenged to choose appropriate materials for the specific environment’s conditions. Students must investigate the relevant environmental hazards and difficulties within the landscape, as well as the functions of the robot. They then propose materials for the construction of their robot which will function in that environment and must justify their choices.

Projector or interactive white board

Media Resources
Student worksheet
Landscapes PowerPoint
Articles on Google Camel and ExoMars



Starter (10 mins)

Watch the clip of the Mars Rover on the CHRISTMAS LECTURES.

Ask students to brainstorm the challenges of designing a robot for the ExoMars mission.

Main (35 mins)

Tell students about the use of a camel by Google to photograph the desert for its Google Earth project. Ask students what are the advantages and disadvantages of using a camel for this purpose. (5 mins)

Tell students they are researching materials to build a robot which will carry a camera and take photographs without damaging or affecting the landscape. Split students into pairs and ask students to choose one of the environments from the Landscapes PowerPoint. Use the student worksheet to get students to research the terrain and environment for each landscape. (15 mins)

Using the materials worksheet again, get students to research and select the materials that they would use to build their robot and complete why they have chosen those materials (15 mins)

Plenary (15mins)

Students then take it in turns to present their findings to the class and answer questions.

Additional information


Most students will not be familiar with the ExoMars mission. It can be useful to give students the background information on the mission.

Encourage students to think about how the robot will be deployed to the planet, weight considerations, how it will be powered and how it will relay information back to space. Also encourage students to think about the purpose of the mission and corrupting evidence.

Keep the conversation about design of Mars rover open-ended and use as a discussion point to spark imagination.


Lesson can be split so more information on the ExoMars programme is covered in the first lesson and in the second lesson more time is given to choosing materials, designing their robots and creating their final reports before presenting their design and reasoning to the rest of the group.

If necessary restrict discussion to Antarctic landscape and get class to brainstorm challenges of this terrain only.

The image of the Snowcat vehicle can be used as inspiration for what a guide to discussion on what a vehicle designed for that terrain could look like and what materials are used in its construction.


Students have to devise (and, if possible, carry out) a series of tests to establish the properties of their chosen materials.

Students can research movement options for their robots to plan how they would move across the terrain. They can use CADs to create a sketch of their designs.

  • antarctic vehicle

    Antarctic vehicle Sno-Cat 743

    Credit: Andrew Barclay/Flickr

Curriculum links

UK Design & Technology KS3

  • Design
    1a use research and exploration, such as the study of different cultures, to identify and understand user needs
    1c develop specifications to inform the design of innovative, functional, appealing products that respond to needs in a variety of situations
  • Make
    2b select from and use a wider, more complex range of materials, components and ingredients, taking into account their properties
  • Evaluate
    3d understand developments in design and technology, its impact on individuals, society and the environment, and the responsibilities of designers, engineers and technologists
  • Technical knowledge
    4a understand and use the properties of materials and the performance of structural elements to achieve functioning solutions

Supported by the Institution of Engineering and Technology

Watch the full lectures

View the full CHRISTMAS LECTURES, Sparks will fly: How to hack your home, along with behind the scenes footage and related content on the Ri Channel