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.
 

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