Lunar Rovers Could be Dropped Into Lava Tubes to Explore Their Depths

Technical challenges abound when doing space exploration.  Some areas are so remote or isolated that engineers need to build a special purpose-made vehicle to visit them.  That is certainly the case for some of the more remote parts of the moon – especially the as-yet unexplored caves on the moon.  Now a graduate student at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) seems to have developed just such an access system.  

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Swarms of Robots Could Dig Underground Cities on Mars

Underground habitats have recently become a focal point of off-planet colonization efforts.  Protection from micrometeorites, radiation, and other potential hazards makes underground sites desirable compared to surface dwellings. Building such subterranean structures presents a plethora of challenges, not the least of which is how to actually construct them.  A team of researchers at the Delft University of Technology (TUD) is working on a plan to excavate material and then use it to print habitats.  All that would be done with a group of swarming robots.

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A Robot Made of Ice Could Adapt and Repair Itself on Other Worlds

This illustration of Jupiter's moon Europa shows how the icy surface may glow on its nightside, the side facing away from the Sun. Variations in the glow and the color of the glow itself could reveal information about the composition of ice on Europa's surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some of the most tantalizing targets in space exploration are frozen ice worlds. Take Jupiter’s moon Europa for instance. Its warm salty subsurface ocean is buried under a moon-wide sheet of ice. What’s the best way to explore it?

Maybe an ice robot could play a role.

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Underwater Robot Captures its First Sample 500 Meters Below the Surface of the Ocean

The underwater robot Nereid Under Ice (NUI) being lowered into the Aegean Sea. NUI became the first underwater vehicle to take an automated sample from the sea floor. Image Credit: Evan Lubofsky, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) says their underwater robot has just completed the first-ever automated underwater sampling operation. The robot is called Nereid Under Ice (NEI) and it collected the sample in Greece. WHOI is developing Nereid in association with NASA’s Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research (PSTAR) program.

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Cool Photo of Canadarm2 With its Dextre Hand. Oh and the Earth. That’s Nice Too.

The Canadarm 2 with the robotic hand Dextre attached riding shotgun on the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA

Check out this image of the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Canadarm2 on the International Space Station. The CSA’s Dextre is attached to one end of the arm. The Canadarm2 played a vital role in assembling the ISS, while Dextre helps maintain the ISS, freeing astronauts from routine yet dangerous spacewalks, and allowing them to focus on science.

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Aquatic Rover Drives on the Underside of the Ice in Antarctica

An underwater rover called BRUIE is being tested in Antarctica to look for life under the ice. Developed by engineers at NASA-JPL, the robotic submersible could one day explore ice-covered oceans on moons like Europa and Enceladus. BRUIE is pictured here in an arctic lake near Barrow, Alaska in 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL

Not all rovers are designed to roam around on the surface of other worlds like Mars. One rover, at least, is aquatic; a necessary development if we’re going to explore Enceladus, Europa, and the Solar System’s other watery worlds. This rover is called the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, or BRUIE.

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Shape-shifting Robots Like These Could Be Just What We Need to Explore Titan

A prototype of the transforming robot Shapeshifter is tested in the robotics yard at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it comes to space exploration, it’s robots that do most of the work. That trend will continue as we send missions onto the surfaces of worlds further and further into the Solar System. But for robots to be effective in the challenging environments we need to explore—like Saturn’s moon Titan—we need more capable robots.

A new robot NASA is developing could be the next step in robotic exploration.

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The ESA’s SpaceBok Robot Will Hop Its Way Around Low-Gravity Worlds

The SpaceBok is a hopping exploration robot being developed for use on low-gravity worlds. Image Credit: ESA

The ESA is helping a group of students from Zurich test and develop their hopping exploration robot. Called SpaceBok, the robot is designed to operate on low-gravity bodies like the Moon or asteroids. It’s based on the concept of ‘dynamic walking’, something that animals on Earth use.

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Astronaut Scott Tingle Was Able To Control A Ground-Based Robot… From Space.

The artificially intelligent robot Justin cleans the solar panels in the simulated Martian landscape after being instructed to do so by American astronaut Scott Tingle aboard the ISS. Image: (DLR) German Aerospace Center (CC-BY 3.0)

If something called “Project METERON” sounds to you like a sinister project involving astronauts, robots, the International Space Station, and artificial intelligence, I don’t blame you. Because that’s what it is (except for the sinister part.) In fact, the Meteron Project (Multi-Purpose End-to-End Robotic Operation Network) is not sinister at all, but a friendly collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR.)

The idea behind the project is to place an artificially intelligent robot here on Earth under the direct control of an astronaut 400 km above the Earth, and to get the two to work together.

“Artificial intelligence allows the robot to perform many tasks independently, making us less susceptible to communication delays that would make continuous control more difficult at such a great distance.” – Neil Lii, DLR Project Manager.

On March 2nd, engineers at the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics set up the robot called Justin in a simulated Martian environment. Justin was given a simulated task to carry out, with as few instructions as necessary. The maintenance of solar panels was the chosen task, since they’re common on landers and rovers, and since Mars can get kind of dusty.

Justin is a pretty cool looking robot. Image: (DLR) German Aerospace Center (CC-BY 3.0)

The first test of the METERON Project was done in August. But this latest test was more demanding for both the robot and the astronaut issuing the commands. The pair had worked together before, but since then, Justin was programmed with more abstract commands that the operator could choose from.

American astronaut Scott Tingle issued commands to Justin from a tablet aboard the ISS, and the same tablet also displayed what Justin was seeing. The human-robot team had practiced together before, but this test was designed to push the pair into more challenging tasks. Tingle had no advance knowledge of the tasks in the test, and he also had no advance knowledge of Justin’s new capabilities. On-board the ISS, Tingle quickly realized that the panels in the simulation down here were dusty. They were also not pointed in the optimal direction.

This was a new situation for Tingle and for Justin, and Tingle had to choose from a range of commands on the tablet. The team on the ground monitored his choices. The level of complexity meant that Justin couldn’t just perform the task and report it completed, it meant that Tingle and the robot also had to estimate how clean the panels were after being cleaned.

“Our team closely observed how the astronaut accomplished these tasks, without being aware of these problems in advance and without any knowledge of the robot’s new capabilities,” says DLR engineer Daniel Leidner.

Streaks of dust or sand on NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity show what can happen to solar panels on the red planet. For any more permanent structures that we may put on Mars, an artificially intelligent maintenance robot under the control of an astronaut in orbit could be the perfect solution to the maintenance of solar panels. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next test will take place in Summer 2018 and will push the system even further. Justin will have an even more complex task before him, in this case selecting a component on behalf of the astronaut and installing it on the solar panels. The German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst will be the operator.

If the whole point of this is not immediately clear to you, think Mars exploration. We have rovers and landers working on the surface of Mars to study the planet in increasing detail. And one day, humans will visit the planet. But right now, we’re restricted to surface craft being controlled from Earth.

What METERON and other endeavours like it are doing, is developing robots that can do our work for us. But they’ll be smart robots that don’t need to be told every little thing. They are just given a task and they go about doing it. And the humans issuing the commands could be in orbit around Mars, rather than being exposed to all the risks on the surface.

“Artificial intelligence allows the robot to perform many tasks independently, making us less susceptible to communication delays that would make continuous control more difficult at such a great distance,” explained Neil Lii, DLR Project Manager. “And we also reduce the workload of the astronaut, who can transfer tasks to the robot.” To do this, however, astronauts and robots must cooperate seamlessly and also complement one another.

These two images from the camera on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor show the effect that a global dust storm has on Mars. On the left is a normal view of Mars, on the right is Mars obscured by the haze from a dust storm. Image: NASA/JPL/MSSS

That’s why these tests are important. Getting the astronaut and the robot to perform well together is critical.

“This is a significant step closer to a manned planetary mission with robotic support,” says Alin Albu-Schäffer, head of the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics. It’s expensive and risky to maintain a human presence on the surface of Mars. Why risk human life to perform tasks like cleaning solar panels?

“The astronaut would therefore not be exposed to the risk of landing, and we could use more robotic assistants to build and maintain infrastructure, for example, with limited human resources.” In this scenario, the robot would no longer simply be the extended arm of the astronaut: “It would be more like a partner on the ground.”