Exploring With an Armada of Autonomous Robots


JPL has a fun article on their website detailing what future robotic exploration might entail: an armada of robots could one day fly above the mountain tops of Saturn’s moon Titan, cross its vast dunes and sail in its liquid lakes. This is the vision of Wolfgang Fink, from the California Institute of Technology. He says we are on the brink of a great paradigm shift in planetary exploration, and the next round of robotic explorers will be nothing like what we see today.

“The way we explore tomorrow will be unlike any cup of tea we’ve ever tasted,” said Fink. “We are departing from traditional approaches of a single robotic spacecraft with no redundancy that is Earth-commanded to one that allows for having multiple, expendable low-cost robots that can command themselves or other robots at various locations at the same time.”

Fink and his team members at Caltech, the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Arizona are developing autonomous software and have built a robotic test bed that can mimic a field geologist or astronaut, capable of working independently and as part of a larger team. This software will allow a robot to think on its own, identify problems and possible hazards, determine areas of interest and prioritize targets for a close-up look.

The way things work now, engineers command a rover or spacecraft to carry out certain tasks and then wait for them to be executed. They have little or no flexibility in changing their game plan as events unfold; for example, to image a landslide or cryovolcanic eruption as it happens, or investigate a methane outgassing event.

“In the future, multiple robots will be in the driver’s seat,” Fink said. These robots would share information in almost real time. This type of exploration may one day be used on a mission to Titan, Mars and other planetary bodies. Current proposals for Titan would use an orbiter, an air balloon and rovers or lake landers.

In this mission scenario, an orbiter would circle Titan with a global view of the moon, with an air balloon or airship floating overhead to provide a birds-eye view of mountain ranges, lakes and canyons. On the ground, a rover or lake lander would explore the moon’s nooks and crannies. The orbiter would “speak” directly to the air balloon and command it to fly over a certain region for a closer look. This aerial balloon would be in contact with several small rovers on the ground and command them to move to areas identified from overhead.

“This type of exploration is referred to as tier-scalable reconnaissance,” said Fink. “It’s sort of like commanding a small army of robots operating in space, in the air and on the ground simultaneously.”

A rover might report that it’s seeing smooth rocks in the local vicinity, while the airship or orbiter could confirm that indeed the rover is in a dry riverbed – unlike current missions, which focus only on a global view from far above but can’t provide information on a local scale to tell the rover that indeed it is sitting in the middle of dry riverbed.

A current example of this type of exploration can best be seen at Mars with the communications relay between the rovers and orbiting spacecraft like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. However, that information is just relayed and not shared amongst the spacecraft or used to directly control them.

“We are basically heading toward making robots that command other robots,” said Fink, who is director of Caltech’s Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory, where this work has taken place.

“One day an entire fleet of robots will be autonomously commanded at once. This armada of robots will be our eyes, ears, arms and legs in space, in the air, and on the ground, capable of responding to their environment without us, to explore and embrace the unknown,” he added.

Papers describing this new exploration are published in the journal “Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine” and in the Proceedings of the SPIE.

Source: JPL

10 Replies to “Exploring With an Armada of Autonomous Robots”

  1. Maybe there is some indirect benefit for NASA in congress spending inordinate amounts of dough on military hardware…

    Meet the amazing PETMAN, the “bipedal bot” that “walks on two legs and can recover from a push, using the same balancing technology that allows BigDog to recover from a kick or keep its balance when walking on ice.”

    This wonderfully capable robot is to “be used for military chemical suit research”?!

    [“”Unlike previous suit testers, which had to be supported mechanically and had a limited repertoire of motion, PETMAN will balance itself and move freely; walking, crawling and doing a variety of suit-stressing calisthenics during exposure to chemical warfare agents.””]

    Good for the military. But what about Asimov’s “Robot dreams”? :-/

  2. This is the future of space exploration and science, and these developments will always outstrip astronaut flight.


  3. The main advantage of robots is they never have to return… but for any detailed study you still need to bring carefully selected samples back to earth.

    Putting more instruments on the robot itself means increasing costs and weight. Plus if you consider the difficulties of what happens when a robot gets high centered on a rock, multiplied by a dozen machines, there’s no easy way forward.

    I think if we invested a bit more in making manned space flight affordable, we could learn more by putting scientists closer to the things they are studying.

  4. I’ve always been pro-robot over manned flight. Cheaper, easier, and no one cries (too much) if the robot dies. I never understood the desire to rush men to Mars when something like 2/3 of the missions there have failed.
    I know it would be cool to have a man on the planet and there’s stuff you can do that a robot can’t, but again there’s the failure rate…

  5. We’ve been using lighter-than-air craft to explore Earth for more than 250 years, certainly much longer than wheeled machines. Why we have not yet used blimps and balloons in the atmospheres of Venus and Mars is a mystery to me.

  6. The future it may be, but not the near future. I’m 28, and I reckon I’ll be at least upper-middle age before we start seeing even basic semi-autonomous robot swarm missions. For the sort of missions they seem to be describing here, I reckon that’s a good 30 – 40 years off unless we start getting some enthusiasm from the public and governments – a tall order.

    Still, I will say this for the American armed forces and DARPA – they are HEAVILY investing in the sort of robotic and autonomous vehicle technology that could be scaled down and directly ported to planetary exploration requirements. Maybe there is some indirect benefit for NASA in congress spending inordinate amounts of dough on military hardware…

  7. uncledan, 2/3 of the total missions may have failed, but recently there is only the Beagle lander part of one mission that has done so. The technology to get (probes) there has matured, as well as landing _small_ crafts.

    I’ll admit the rest is still “under development”… o.O For example, no one seems to know how to “Mars land” [lg?] something massing over 1 Mg.

    How much mass is that “aerial balloon” now again?

    we could learn more by putting scientists closer to the things they are studying.

    Until the day that the robots can work science at large that will be true. And long after that I still rather like our colonies to be biological than “mechalogical”. I’m conservative that way, especially when discussing risks. 😀

    I’ve started to be concerned about the various and lengthy work that is required to assess fossils and especially microfossils the day that we decide to study Mars for any previous biosphere. Isotope ratios may be easy, yet there seems to be an ad hoc sample collection process involved.

    Here I don’t see but how “astronaut flight” will “outstrip” robotic development in the foreseeable future. And if the buy Astrofiend’s estimate for swarm missions, and I personally find it a likely one, manned missions is a contender for that as well. Their technology lies further off, but the incentive for cash intensive missions such as these ones may be larger. So it seems to me an even contest.

  8. Robot swarm missions will always feel the axe of ‘over budget’ and get reduced to 1 camera attached to a dish that cost 2 billion to develop.

    I think will see guys playing golf on Mars before these.

    I would be great if we could get both.

  9. robotic exploration is fine, and its a great stepping stone…But permanent manned bases and outposts should always be the final goal.

  10. Balloons on Mars are maybe not practical. The atmosphere is 1/100 the pressure on Earth, which is at the upper altitude pressure limit of balloons lofted here. A balloon wafting around the upper atmosphere of Venus sounds reasonable if we want to get data on the atmosphere.

    I will believe bases on Titan might happen the day we terriform a domed over region on Antarctica into a tropical paradise. 😉

    Lawrence B. Crowell

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