Mars Rover Testing in the Moroccan Sahara Desert

Dan Jones

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This Friday I'll be privileged enough to travel to the Ibn Battuta test Centre in Erfoud in the Moroccan Sahara Desert to support tests for advanced robotic software technologies which are anticipated to be used for Next Generation Mars exploration missions. The tests represent the culmination of four years work on the international R&D programme which has been coordinated by ESA and five national agencies (CNES, ASI, DLR, CDTI & UKSA), and a cluster of industry-led consortia. The programme is funded by the European Commission.

My interest is in pushing UK involvement, but also emphasising the need for European cooperation to make this happen. As such, UK organisations such as Airbus DS, Thales-Alenia-Space, Scisys, King's College London and GMV UK are all supporting the tests in Morocco, alongside our European counterparts.

But these tests represent just the first major milestone in the programme. From next year, new projects will commence that will seek to integrate these technologies into holistic systems and then apply them to next generation mission scenarios. For this my colleagues and I have identified five specific applications: in-orbit autonomous robotic servicing of satellites; in-orbit robotic assembly of large structures; in-orbit reconfiguration of modular satellites; long-range autonomous traverse on planetary surface; and robotic cooperation for advanced mobility and ISRU (In-site Resource Utilisation). It's our intention to fly this technology by 2025, if the political and funding decisions go our way.

Here's a little more background.

So far as we know, Mars is the only planet populated by robots; six of them in fact. Presently, the most advanced of them are able to travel no more than a few tens of metres per sol, or Martian Day. This is because it takes eight minutes for commands to reach Mars from Earth, and another eight minutes for the rover's communications to return home, and communications with Earth can only happen once or twice per day. New intelligent software systems will enable a rover to make its own decisions about where it needs to go, and how to get there, meaning it could go from travelling a few dozen metres to upwards of a kilometre per sol, all while delivering more scientific returns per mission.

What technology is being tested? [the names of the consortia are in CAPS]
  • The ERGO Autonomy framework. The autonomy framework enables the rover to make decisions by itself without the need for human intervention. These decisions could be about the path a rover needs to take to get to its destination. It also means the rover can make decisions about managing its resources, for example shutting down certain functions to conserve power. It will also give the rover the ability to investigate things it deems to be interesting, things which human operators might miss.
  • The INFUSE Data Fusion Framework. Data fusion is the fusing together of data from different sensors and sources in order to create useful information, such as maps, which the rover can then use to navigate successfully across the difficult Martian landscape. The data will be provided by different types of camera, sensors, trackers, and torches to give the rover a full understanding of the Martian world around it.
  • The I3DS Plug And Play Sensor Suite. The rover needs various sensors to enable it to see, perceive and understand the Martian world around it. Using a "plug-and-play" approach means that sensors can be installed and removed easily according to the mission requirements. The Sensor suite also has a unique, built-in computer called an ICU (Interation Control Unit) that processes the signals from the sensors into information before passing that information to the Data Fusion system.
  • The ESROCOS Operating System. Robots need operating systems to function, just like your computer, tablet, phone or laptop at home. The operating system provides the low-level software and libraries required by the robot to undertake basic functions. It also provides the language and framework with which the other software (such as the ERGO Autonomy Framework and the INFUSE Data Fusion) must adhere in order to create a coherent and integrated system. In other words, this is the core software that provides the rules which bind all the other systems and software together.
(There is also a fifth technology, a Standardised Robotic Manipulator Interface (actually an interconnector with several load-bearing interfaces), but it is not necessary to test this in the desert, so this technology has been limited to lab testing).

The software systems will be mounted onto a four-wheeled rover called Sherpa, provided by the German Robotics Innovation Centre DFKI, and which has undertaken Mars rover tests before.



Even if these tests deliver successful results, it is unlikely that these technologies would be seen on real Mars Rovers launched into space for several years, as the technology will need to be applied in further tests before it is judged to be space-worthy.

The Ibn Battuta test centre is named after the 14th century Islamic explorer of the same name, and is a popular site for testing Mars rovers, as the red, rocky terrain is very similar to the surface of the Red Planet.

The tests are part of a series of research projects that are part of a programme called the Space Robotics Strategic Research Cluster, funded by the European Commission via the Horizon2020 Programme. The tests will continue until December 14th.

I'm sharing this to Chrons because I know this is of interest to many people here - so please share, retweet and post - we want this to make a splash. It shows the best of European collaboration, agency-led vision and gives a glimpse of what we can expect to see flying in space over the next twenty years or so.

Further information:

Peraspera Website - Welcome - PERASPERA
Twitter: @ft_morocco
 

Robert Zwilling

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I think the time lapse because of distance is quite easily forgotten by most bystanders as a huge stumbling block for the option of people sitting in safe, comfortable surroundings operating machines by remote control.
 

Vertigo

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Of course sometimes that comms delay is even worse depending on Earth and Mars' relative positions which are naturally always changing. I believe the minimum is around 4 minutes and the maximum is around 24 minutes.

Good stuff @Dan Jones, I envy you your involvement in such exciting science!
 

Dan Jones

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The more critical element is that the rover has to harvest / manage its resources in such a way that it can only communicate once or twice a day. That's the killer, really. Hopefully this new tech will take big leaps forward in that respect.

And yes, I'm aware just how lucky I am in getting to do this stuff, so I intend to make the most of it while I can :)
 

Robert Zwilling

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I saw a program about squirrels and one of the segments featured a robot designer studying the way the squirrels jump, seeing as how they were able to leap 7 or 8 times their body length, he was very impressed.

People go maybe 1 or 1-1/2 times their body length. It's all in the body design and the way the squirrels minds operate, no magic required, no super strength, no drugs, they just do it. He found out that there were some pretty basics starts to the leap. Things he could copy to make his jumping robot work.

The problem is the squirrels have a hundred or more different ways to complete the jump. Branches being what they, making flexible launching pads and flexible landing pads, the landing is more about getting a secure grip on whatever they land on. The landings can be quite messy, even upside down, but being 100 feet in the air, it has to end successfully. And the jumps do end successfully otherwise the ground would be littered with squirrel bodies.

The robots need the ability to get themselves out of a jam. The farther away from home, the rougher the landscape, the more likely every step forward or maybe even backwards needs a ready made escape plan that can be put into action as soon as it becomes apparent it is needed.
 

Brian G Turner

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@Dan Jones , I have a question for you - what is the presumed density of space between Earth and Mars?

Simply that traditionally it's stated that space is so empty that you're talking about counting atoms per square metre. And yet, Phil Plait states that "about a hundred tons of meteoric material hits the Earth every day": Meteorite impacts a house in Uruguay

If he's right, then there's an awful lot of dust and debris that needs to be accounted for within the solar system - certainly not a huge density, but enough to be significant rather than negligible and therefore needs to be accounted for in calculations.

However, I'm struggling to find any information online. :confused:
 

Dan Jones

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I don’t have any hard and fast figures on the density of space, but space isn’t dense at all, in the manner that we think of it. Space is certainly full of “stuff” like particles and photons and dust and gas and ice and fundamental matter and cosmic rays and plasmas and stuff like that, but you’ve got to remember that the main thing about space is, it’s big. Really, really big. So on the scale of the Solar System or, as you say, the distance between Earth and Mars, you could say there are several tonnes of stuff up there, but the distance between Earth and Mars is, compared with any sort of practical distance humans have to deal with in everyday life, unbelievably huge. So that several tonnes of stuff, which would look impressive if you piled it all together on Earth, is going to be spread almost infinitesimally thinly across the millions and millions of miles that make up that distance.

I take it this for a story, right? What’s the exact context?

@Venusian Broon might have some more ideas, as I work on the technology stuff rather than the actual space science. I could also ask at work if it’s pertinent.
 

Venusian Broon

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Here's my notes on Interstellar and Interplanetary space (culled from various sources) :)

There are two main components to interstellar medium: matter – dust and gas; and energy – in the form of electromagnetic radiation.

1. Matter involved is an extremely dilute mixture of ions, atoms, molecules, larger dust grains and cosmic rays.

The main composition can be approximated at 99% gas to 1% dust, although of course areas will have varying amounts. Densities range from 1000s to a few hundred million particles, per cubic metre. The average for the galaxy seems to be ~1 million atoms per cubic metre, or one atom per cubic centimetre. (Currently Sol appears to be travelling in an interstellar gas field of ~0.1 atoms/cc, ten times less than average). Mixture of gas is ~89% H, 9% He and 2% with elements higher in the periodic table.

Cosmic rays are mainly protons (~90%, the other <10% are He nuclei and slightly under 1% heavier elements and electrons) travelling at extremely high speeds with very high energies. Generally speaking, because of interference between the Sun, Earth and the Interstellar medium it is impossible to unscramble where these rays originate. Some of these particles are so energetic that we have no idea what physical process could have produced them. Unprotected these rays are strong enough to give radiation poisoning to humans. It has been estimated that a trip to Mars and back would give humans an exposure of ~0.1-0.25x of the Maximum allowable career limits of radiation exposure. Solutions currently looked at to stop such exposure (some shielding would be worse, if it allows the by-products of the cosmic ray collision to continue through the ship) – such as using hydrogen rich materials (Plastics, H20 and liquid H2 shielding) or EM fields.

2. Energy, essentially EM fields. Simple stuff - photons!: Visible light, infrared from hot sources, IR background radiation etc… Some small areas of space will be ionized and very hot – i.e. interstellar medium that has been excited by a nearby supernova, as well. I would assume that might be elements of magnetic fields, particularly if theories on cosmic magnetic fields and galaxy formation are correct. As mentioned before there will also be a smattering of high energy fields, UV, X- and gamma rays, generally caused by the birth and death of stars.

The make up of interplanetary space is of course somewhat similar to deep interstellar medium but is different in a number of counts:

Firstly it is denser, at least closer to the sun and is also much more of a plasma. For example at the orbit of earth, interplanetary medium is ~5 atoms per/cc. Because of surges in the stars output (i.e. coronal mass ejections), there can be surges of up to 100s of particles/cc. The coronal ‘wind’ and where it is finally stopped by the interstellar medium is taken as the definition as the edge of a star and planetary system.

Dust has generally been generated by the planetary system itself and its interactions and collisions that asteroids, comets and the planets themselves cause. Very little has come from the interstellar medium. So I’d assume there was a bit more of it in percentage terms, compared to gas, than in the deep reaches of interstellar space.

High energy cosmic rays can easily enter the solar system, only being stopped by large lumps of matter – like the Earth or humans, say - or being deflected by magnetic fields...

This feature of interplanetary space is not really present in interstellar space: strong magnetic fields – i.e. from the interactions between the sun’s coronal plasma and planets with liquid metallic cores.
 

Venusian Broon

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With regards to your question Brian.

If you assumed the Earth sweeps up a certain volume of space and there's about 5 atoms/cc, on average in that space, that's still not enough to explain about 100 tons in a day. (It's about 2-3 tons).

However the Earth is a massive body, relatively, and I assume you have to increase the 'area of space' that it sweeps, because it will be gravitationally attracting all the small stuff at distance much further than just the geometric radius.

Probably, I haven't done the mathematics ;)
 

Venusian Broon

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With regards to your question Brian.

If you assumed the Earth sweeps up a certain volume of space and there's about 5 atoms/cc, on average in that space, that's still not enough to explain about 100 tons in a day. (It's about 2-3 tons).

However the Earth is a massive body, relatively, and I assume you have to increase the 'area of space' that it sweeps, because it will be gravitationally attracting all the small stuff at distance much further than just the geometric radius.

Probably, I haven't done the mathematics ;)
Thinking about this, since I posted.

My guess is that this figure of 1-5 atoms per/cc does not explicitly account for large bits of rock, like meteorites. From memory I did find a while back that the density of matter for intergalactic space is calculated by observing quasars and observing the absorption lines of matter that interfere with this light. You can then calculate a density of matter that must be present to account for this.

So perhaps for the interplanetary figures I found, a similar calculation is done on 'empty' space and they find that in the vicinity of earth, by observing a light source of known brightness and finding the absorption lines that we have about 5 atoms per cc.

I still think the gravitational influence of earth will have an effect on attracting large amounts of stuff. Note also that at the same time, there are mass losses by the planets, because of the coronal wind from the sun is ripping off atoms from their atmospheres. Planets with no strong magnetic field should look, if you looked at the right wavelengths, like massive comets with big tails. I think. Venus should be a good example.
 

Robert Zwilling

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So far as we know, Mars is the only planet populated by robots
That is a heck of a statement with implications for plenty of stories. Get enough robots up there talking to each without sharing with their masters back on Earth and and maybe when people start showing up they might not get a real positive reception.

Exotic space dust could be something to look for. Over very long distances I think it might be easier to locate large dust deposits in space because they are could be easier to spot than small objects which are not able to be seen unless you are looking right at them. Scooping up the dust would create it's own problems.
 

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