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Europe is testing self-driving Mars rovers | Space

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  Engineers observe the progress of one of the test rovers in Morocco.

Engineers observe the progress of one of the test rovers in Morocco. Image via ESA.

Although the landing on Mars is hard, the rovers and robotic landers have now become a regular feature of the exploration of Mars. These advanced exploration machines are sending unprecedented information on this fascinating red world. One limitation, however, has been that rovers and landers are still, for the most part, controlled by human operators on Earth. On December 18, 2018, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the testing of software for new Mars rovers that will help make their future explorations more autonomous – "smarter" and more capable of making their own decisions, such as decide where you are going and how to get there – that is self-driving .

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Three different rovers – Sherpa, Mana and Minnie – have been tested in five locations at the Ibn Battuta Test Center in Morocco, near Erfoud on the northern edge of the desert of the Sahara, in December 2018. With more than 40 engineers involved, this was the end of the first phase of the Strategic Research Cluster on space robotics technologies, a program funded by the Horizon 2020 program of the European Union.

As explained by Gianfranco Visentin, head of Automation and Robotics of the ESA section:

This is important for the future, when there will be many other rovers going to Mars and moving hundreds of meters [yards] per day. There will be no schools of analysts to scrutinize every image – intelligent rover systems will be needed to detect what is interesting and send it to Earth.

  Four-wheeled Mars Rover with upper arm

Another view of the UK Sherpa test rover. Image copyrighted by Crown.

  Two small rovers four tired with antennas on top

The Mana and Minnie rovers, during field tests in Morocco in December 2018. Image via ESA.

The research cluster is coordinated by PERASPERA Ad Astra (in Latin for the project "to the stars through hardships"), which is a partnership between the ASI space agency in Italy, the CNES space agency in France, the DLR German Aerospace Center, the Spanish technology agency CDTI and the UK space agency, UKSA, coordinated by the ESA.

The desert wind environment in Morocco was selected by the EU Europlanet research infrastructure as a good match for Mars, with its red, rocky and dusty terrain. The location was also used by Hollywood and Chinese documentarists. The Ibn Battuta Test Center is named after the 14th century Islamic explorer of the same name.

A variety of new technologies have been tested on rovers, including data fusion systems, a suite of plug-and-play sensors and an open source operating system for robotic control. More specifically, according to a British government press release:

ERGO's autonomy framework: The autonomy structure allows the rover to make decisions on its own without the need for human intervention. These decisions could relate to the path that a rover must undertake to reach its destination. It also means that the rover can make decisions about managing resources, for example by closing certain functions to save energy. It will also give the rover the opportunity to investigate things that it considers interesting, things that human operators could lose.

INFUSE Data Fusion: Data fusion involves merging data from different sensors and sources to create useful information such as maps, which the rover can then use to navigate successfully through the difficult Martian landscape. Data will be provided by different types of cameras, sensors, trackers and torches to give the rover a full understanding of the surrounding Mars world.

I3DS Plug and Play Sensor Suite: The rover needs various sensors to enable it to see, perceive and understand the world of Mars. Using a "plug-and-play" approach means that sensors can be easily installed and removed based on mission requirements. The Sensor suite also has a single integrated computer called the ICU (Integration Control Unit) that processes signals from sensors into information before passing that information to the Data Fusion system.

The ESROCOS operating system: robots must work 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 perform basic functions. It also provides the language and framework with which the other software (such as ERGO Autonomy Framework and INFUSE Data Fusion) must adhere in order to create a coherent and integrated system. In other words, this is the basic software that provides the rules that unite all the other systems and software together.

According to Visentin:

What this type of field test offers is the pudding proof that your project is working well, even in some of the most difficult environments we can imagine.

The laboratory tests of the hardware we design do not take into account the variability that nature brings, from the light of the sky to the shape of the landscape, the texture and colors of sand and rock. Operating in this way demonstrates that our systems work in much more complex and elaborate settings than can ever be simulated.

To give an example during this field test, the uniformity and homogeneity of some of the large sand dunes proved difficult for computer vision algorithms to navigate, because they are based on identification of characteristics based on the difference, so they started behaving in unexpected ways that we had never seen before.

Our excellent results also included some good successes: the SherpaTT rover managed a 1.3-km [.8 mile] journey on a totally autonomous basis, while its autonomous scientific element triggered a scientific acquisition by itself, to no avail: he identified some strange shaped stones and then asked the main planner to move to a better position to shoot more images. [19659006] This is important for the future when there are many more rovers going to Mars and moving hundreds of meters [yards] a day. There will be no schools of analysts to examine each image – intelligent rover systems will be needed to detect what is interesting and send it to Earth.

  Man dropping a flying drone

A drone that is used to map the surrounding terrain where the rovers were tested. Image via ESA,

  Rover from the spider aspect with the upper arm

The UK Sherpa rover during field tests in Morocco in December 2018. Image via ESA.

Prior to the start of the tests, ESA also flew drone to map the location, producing digital elevation models up to a resolution of 4 cm (1.6 inches). This type of "earth truthing" was necessary to compare the data of the rovers with the observed reality.

The current rovers are limited to driving a few dozen meters a day, but with the new software the future rovers could travel up to one kilometer (0.6 miles) a day, a great improvement that would allow the rovers to investigate a greater number of scientifically interesting places during their missions.

Several companies and universities in the United Kingdom also participated in the tests, including Airbus Defense & Space, Thales Alenia Space, Scisys, King & # 39; s College London, Strathclyde University and GMV-UK.

  Four-wheeled Rover with antenna at the top

Illustration of the upcoming ExoMars rover, scheduled for 2020. New rovers like this will be able to use more advanced software to become "self-driving". Image via ESA / ATG medialab.

More advanced autonomous driving technology will be essential for future Mars rovers, so they can navigate the terr without having to be so dependent on human engineers charging commands from the Earth. The NASA Curiosity rover has some autonomous capacity, but it will need to be improved when the new rovers land on potentially more challenging terrains, including the upcoming Mars 2020 rover (NASA) and the ExoMars rover (ESA).

line: New self-guiding rovers designed and tested by ESA through the European Horizon 2020 program will help future Mars rovers to travel faster and further without human assistance.



  Paul Scott Anderson

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