ESA tests autonomous rover in Chilean desert ahead of ExoMars mission


June 19, 2012

The ESA's Seeker rover being put through its paces in Chile's Atacama Desert (Photo: ESA)

The ESA's Seeker rover being put through its paces in Chile's Atacama Desert (Photo: ESA)

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With remote control of rovers on Mars out of the question due to radio signals taking up to 40 minutes to make the round trip to and from the Red Planet, the European Space Agency (ESA) has developed a vehicle that is able to carry out instructions fully autonomously. The ESA team recently tested their Seeker full-scale rover in Chile where the rover was able to chart its own course through the Mars-like Atacama Desert.

The multidisciplinary team, which was put together by the ESA just six months ago, was challenged with demonstrating a planetary rover that could autonomously make decisions, traverse six kilometers (3.7 miles) in a Mars-like environment, and return to its starting point. With Mars lacking any GPS satellites to help with navigation, the rover must determine how far it has moved relative to its starting point. However, as ESA’s Gianfranco Visentin points out, any errors in this “dead reckoning” method can “build up into risky uncertainties.”

To minimize any uncertainties, the team sought to fix the rover’s position on a map to an accuracy of one meter (3.28 ft). To build a 3D map of its surroundings, assess how far it had traveled and plan the most efficient route to avoid obstacles, Seeker relied on its stereo vision.

After the prototypes were tested indoors and out, the team took Seeker to the Atacama Desert in May. Over a two-week period, the team put the rover through its paces, maintaining only radio surveillance as the rover traveled out of sight. The tests culminated with a final trial that saw Seeker programmed to perform a six-kilometer loop.

With the rover only traveling at a maximum speed of 0.9 km/h (0.56 mph), the journey would have taken all day. Unfortunately weather conditions weren’t ideal, with the desert winds that help to counteract the heat of the Sun dropping away during the day.

“The rover grew dangerously warm, and had to be stopped around midday. Then, when the wind finally picked up there wasn’t enough time to complete the loop before sundown,” said Gianfranco. “We managed 5.1 km (3.16 miles), somewhat short of our 6 km goal, but an excellent result considering the variety of terrain crossed, changes in lighting conditions experienced and most of all this was ESA’s first large-scale rover test – though definitely not our last.”

Gianfranco points out that the ExoMars rover that is due to land on Mars in 2018 will not travel more than 150 m (492 ft) per Martian day and not much more than three kilometers (1.86 miles) over the course of its mission.

“The difficulty comes with follow-on missions, which will require daily traverses of five to ten times longer,” he says. “With longer journeys, the rover progressively loses sense of where it is.”

The Seeker testing in the Atacama Desert is designed to help the ESA team meet these challenges.

Source: ESA

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Moon-landing skeptics must be wringing their hands with joy - the Mars-like Atacama Desert?


What I wonder is why NASA can't send clusters of small, specialized rovers to planets rather than a single all-in-one machine. They'd get a whole lot more studying done if you ask me, and benefit from the redundancy.

Joel Detrow

re; Joel Detrow

Cost. Each individual machine has to have its own power supply, command system, navigation system, mobility system, and so forth.

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