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Europe tests self-propelled Marsrovers | space

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  Engineers watch the progress of a testrove in Morocco.

Engineers watch the progress of one of the Testrovers in Morocco. Image via ESA.

Despite the hard landing on Mars, robotic rovers and lander have become an integral part of Mars exploration. These advanced reconnaissance machines send unprecedented information back to this fascinating red world. One caveat, however, was that Rovers and Lander are still mostly controlled by human operators on Earth. On 18 December 2018, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the testing of software for new Mars rovers, which will help to make their future exploration more autonomous – "smarter" and able to make their own decisions, such as Deciding where to go and how to get there – ie self-propelled .

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Three different rovers – Sherpa, Mana and Minnie – were tested at five locations in December 2018 at the Ibn Battuta Test Center in Morocco near Erfoud on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert with more than 40 engineers involved the first phase of the Strategic Research Cluster on Space Robotic Technologies, a program funded by the Horizon 2020 program of the European Union.

As explained by Gianfranco Visentin, Director of Automation and Robotics at ESA,

This is important for the future when many more rovers will travel to Mars and drive hundreds of meters per day [yards] become. There will be no analyst schools that scrutinize every image – intelligent rover systems are needed to identify the interesting and send it to Earth.

  Four-wheeled Mars rover with arm

Another view of the United Kingdom's Sherpa Sherpa. Image via Crown copyright.

  Two small box-shaped four-tired rovers with antennas above

The Mana and Minnie rovers during the field trial in Morocco in December 2018. Image via ESA

The research cluster is coordinated by the project PERASPERA Ad Astra (Latin for "through the needs of the stars"), a partnership of the Italian Space Agency (ASI), the French space agency CNES, the DLR Center for Aerospace (DLR), the Spanish CDTI Technology Agency and the UK Space Agency (UKSA) coordinated from the ESA.

The wind-swept desert environment in Morocco was selected by Europlanet's EU research infrastructure as a good link to Mars with its red, rocky and dusty terrain. The location was also used by Hollywood and Chinese documentary filmmakers. The Ibn Battuta Test Center is named after the 14th-century Islamic researcher of the same name.

Various new technologies have been tested on the Rovers, including data fusion systems, a plug-and-play sensor suite and an open-source robot operating system operating system. More specifically, according to a British government press release:

The ERGO Autonomy Framework: The autonomy framework allows the Rover to make decisions on its own without human intervention. These decisions could be the way a rover must take to reach the destination. This also means that the rover can make decisions about the management of its resources, eg. For example, disabling certain features to conserve power. It also gives the rover the ability to investigate things that it finds interesting, which may be overlooked by operators.

INFUSE Data Fusion: Data fusion is about merging data from multiple sensors and sources into useful information, such as maps that help the rover navigate the intricate Martian landscape. The data is provided by various camera types, sensors, trackers, and flashlights to give the rover a complete understanding of the Martian world.

The I3DS Plug & Play Sensor Suite: The Rover requires a variety of sensors to enable it to see, perceive and understand the Martian world. Using a plug-and-play approach means sensors can be easily installed and removed according to mission requirements. The Sensor Suite also has a built-in computer called the Integration Control Unit (ICU), which transforms sensor signals into information before passing that information on to the Data Fusion system.

The ESROCOS operating system: Robots must be operated Systems that work like your computer, tablet, phone or laptop at home. The operating system provides the low-level software and libraries that the robot needs to perform basic functions. It also provides the language and framework that other software (such as the ERGO Autonomy Framework and INFUSE Data Fusion) must adhere to to create a coherent and integrated system. In other words, this is the core software that contains the rules that connect all other systems and software.

According to Visentin:

What this type of field test yields You are proof of the pudding that your design works well, even in some of the toughest environments we can imagine.

In the laboratory test of the hardware we design, the variability that the light brings is not taken into account from the sky on the shape of the landscape, the texture and the colors of the sand and the rock. Such outdoor operation proves that our systems operate in much more complex and elaborate environments than could ever be simulated.

In this field test, as an example, some of the large sand dunes have proven to be very smooth and homogeneous Computer vision algorithms for navigation because they are based on identifying features that are based on differences and behave in unexpected ways as we have never seen before.

Our excellent results also included some good accomplishments: the SherpaTT rover achieved a 1.3km [.8 mile] journey on a completely autonomous basis, while its autonomous science element unleashed a straightforward scientific acquisition: it discovered some oddly shaped stones and asked the main planner to move to a better position to take more pictures. 19659006] This is important for the future when many more rovers will travel to Mars and they will move hundreds of meters [yards] per day. There are no analyst schools that scrutinize every image – intelligent rover systems are needed to identify the interesting and send it to Earth.

  Man releasing flying drone

A drone mapping the surrounding terrain where rovers have been tested. Image via ESA,

  Spidery Rover with Arm

The British Sherpa Rover during the field trial in Morocco in December 2018. Image about ESA.

Before the test began, the ESA flew too. To model the location, digital elevation models with a resolution of 4 cm (1.6 inches) are created. This kind of "Ground Trauthing" was necessary to compare data from the Rovers with the observed reality.

Current rovers are limited to a few dozen yards a day, but with the new software, future Rovers could drive up to that point one kilometer (0.6 miles) per day, a huge improvement that would allow the Rovers one to study larger numbers of scientifically interesting sites during their missions.

Various UK companies and universities also participated in the tests, including Airbus Defense & Space, Thales Alenia Space, Scisys, King's College London, the University of Strathclyde and GMV-UK.

  Four-wheeled aerial with antenna above

Illustration of the upcoming ExoMars-Rover, which should start in 2020. New Rovers Like This will be able to use more advanced software to become "self-propelled". Image via ESA / ATG medialab.

More advanced self-propelled technology will be essential for future Mars rovers to be able to move around the Earth without relying on human engineers to upload commands from Earth. While NASA's Curiosity Rover has some autonomous capability, it needs to be improved as new rovers land in potentially challenging terrain, including the upcoming Mars 2020 Rover (NASA) and ExoMars Rover (ESA).

Bottom Line: New self-propelled movers, developed and tested by ESA through the European Horizon 2020 program, will help future Marsrovers travel faster and further without humanitarian assistance.

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  Paul Scott Anderson

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