a legged robot on a dune of white sand

Moving robots can help search for other planets

A “legged” robot is navigating an analog planetary landscape at White Sands Dune Field in New Mexico.


Courtesy of Ryan Ewing

Today NASA uses wheeled vehicles to navigate the surface of Mars and conduct planetary science, but recently funded research involving scientists from Texas A&M University will test the feasibility of a new surface exploration technology: mobile robots.

Ryan EwingRobert R. Professor Berg Department of Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M, and Marion Nachon, an associate research scientist in geology and geophysics, is a research associate in a three-year, $3 million research project funded by NASA and led by Feifei Qian, WiSE Gabilan Associate Professor in the School of Engineering at the University of Southern California Viterbi. The goal of the research is to create and test “legged” robots that can glide more easily across icy surfaces, flaky sand, and other difficult-to-navigate environments, thus greatly enhancing scientists’ abilities to gather information from planetary objects.

While Mars exploration vehicles and other robots have been successfully sent into space, they typically operate on pre-programmed agendas that require scientists and engineers to enter detailed instructions on where to go and what to do before the robots arrive. planet. As a result, when the robot encounters unexpected scenarios or discovers interesting measurements, its capabilities are limited to adapt its plan. This can hinder how robots and rovers navigate new environments or even miss out on scientific opportunities.

Ewing says an enhanced understanding of how robotics technology integrates with both planetary science and cognitive science will improve robot-assisted exploration of planetary environments. This project aims to test the next generation of highly mobile robots that can move quickly across planetary surfaces and flexibly support scientific exploration goals.

“We will conduct this research at two major planetary analog sites that present well-defined gradients in soil types from crustal sands at White Sands Dune Field, New Mexico, to icy rock mixtures at Mount Hood, Ore,” Ewing explained. “Our goal is to combine highly mobile legged robots with embedded terrain sensing techniques and perceptual human decision models to study the geotechnical properties of these soils.”

The project uses “life-inspired” legged robots, which means their shape is modeled after animals’ unique abilities to move well over difficult surfaces such as fine sand. Using the latest “direct-drive” operating technology, these robots can “feel” terrain (such as the softness of sand and the shapes of rocks) through their legs. This ability allows legged robots to interact with the environment in the same way as animals, adjusting their movement as needed.

As Qian said, these robots are designed in a way that allows them to “not only mimic what animals look like, but really understand what makes these animals successful on different terrains.”

The ability to “feel” the terrain using legs also allows these robots to easily gather information about the environment as they move and adjust exploration strategies based on this information.

“We will work to determine how the friction and erosion susceptibility of different soils are affected by surface crusts, rock-covered soils, and ice content,” Ewing explained. “We will deploy direct-driven legged robots to map soil strength in two landscape-like locations on the Moon, Mars, and other worlds. We will simultaneously measure environmental parameters that control soil strength, including particle size and shape, soil moisture, chemical composition, and soil strength. ice”.

As scientists continue their ambition to explore planetary environments, Qian points out that the advantages of sending robots and rovers on initial missions to gather information before sending humans is significant.

“Even in environments where it is safe to dispatch astronauts, mobile robots can integrate scientific instruments and help make accurate measurements while on the move,” Qian said.

The research group also includes scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, Georgia Institute of Technology, NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Temple University and Oregon State University.

“This is a dream team and a very rare opportunity to bring a team of all components into one project,” Qian said.

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