No matter how good the paper mache volcano that you built at school was, your effort will most likely pale in comparison to the school project being undertaken by a group of Spanish students. These students are designing a ball-shaped mini-robot named PicoRover that they plan to send to the Moon as their entry in the Google Lunar X PRIZE. To claim the US$30 million prize the robot will need to travel 500m and transmit video, images and data back to Earth.
PicoRover – pico for picogram because it weighs less than 1kg, and rover because it is a lunar explorer – employs a spherical design that will allow it to move along the low gravity and uneven surface of rock and ash of the lunar surface. The team from the Castelldefels School of Technology (EPSC), part of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) - Barcelona Tech in Spain, has also developed a controller for the device. It works with a small computer built into the ball that weighs only 2g and is equipped with Wi-Fi.
For sending images back to Earth, the robot is equipped with a 353 high-definition camera manufactured by Elphel, one of the companies sponsoring the project. The group is working on developing antennas for sending the images captured with the camera back to Earth.
The ESPC group has developed several prototypes of the PicoRover with the goal of developing a fully autonomous robot capable of moving or stopping as required on the lunar surface.
The prototype on which the group is currently working is a ball measuring 12cm in diameter that houses a motor, battery, remote control system and a high-definition camera. The entire device weighs less than 250g and, like most school projects, the ball is built from low-cost, common-use materials such as light bulbs, aluminum foil, and steel wire.
However, the ball is capable of protecting its inner components from the high lunar temperatures and of climbing up sandy slopes at angles of up to 30° – a feat that can tax wheeled vehicles.
A lightweight mechanism involving a crown and a motor with a counterweight creates a "roly-poly" toy effect that enables the ball to roll in one direction without using four wheels. The PicoRover also includes a hemispherical window housing a high-resolution camera that stays horizontal regardless of the position of the counterweight.
The group has tested this counterweight system on the sand at a beach near Barcelona with better than expected results. The ball has been able to hold its position on a sandy surface with a 33° slope - an angle that would send any other ball without spikes rolling back down.
A PicoRover Network
Its builders claim the PicoRover could operate on its own or as part of a group of other PicoRovers communicating over a radio network, provided they stayed within a 100m range of each other. They say that if this were to be done, it would be the first network of sensors to operate on the Moon.
The group of EPC students, led by professor Joshua Martinez, is part of the FREDNET team, which bills itself as “the first and only 100 percent open source competitor for the Google Lunar X-PRIZE”. US programmer Fred J. Bourgeois leads the FREDNET team, which aims to use the open source approach to solve the problems associated with space exploration.
Altogether, the effort brings together 500 people from 64 countries to share the dream of putting a device on the Moon. Their commitment, if they should win, is to give the proceeds of the award to a non-government organization (NGO).
Being open source there are a number of Rover designs that have been proposed from different FREDNET participants. These various designs will be tested and evaluated before one or more is chosen to make the trip to the Moon – which is to take place “as early as fiscally possible”.
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