'Intelligent' robots for space exploration

In recent years, our exploration of the Solar System has involved more orbiters and rovers than human astronauts. This trend should continue in the future and this is why we need more 'intelligent' robots. SciSys, a UK company, is developing such software for planetary aerobots such as balloons and new kinds of rovers such as the ExoMars.

In recent years, our exploration of the Solar System has involved more orbiters and rovers than human astronauts. This trend should continue in the future and this is why we need more 'intelligent' or autonomous robots. But of course, these robots will be controlled by advanced on-board software. And SciSys, a UK company located West of London, is developing such software. The company is currently working with the European Space Agency (ESA) on two future expeditions to Mars. One will deploy planetary aerobots such as balloons while Aurora will use new kinds of rovers such as the ExoMars. Read more...

But what are planetary aerobots? They represent a median way between traditional orbiters and rovers, as this article explains, article published in a special issue of ERCIM News dedicated to Space Exploration.

Planetary aerobots could transform the way we explore those planets and moons which support an atmosphere. Traditional orbiters offer a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the planet, covering vast swathes of land, with limited resolution. On the other hand, rovers or landers provide a highly detailed characterization of their local surroundings. Bridging this gap, the planetary aerobot can travel large distances whilst at an altitude which allows for the acquisition of extremely high resolution images.

Below is an "artist's impression of a planetary aerobot flying over the Martian surface" (Credit: SciSys). Here are two links to a larger version and to a short movie about this planetary robot [Caution: 38 MB].

A planetary aerobot flying over the Martian surface

SciSys, with the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (UK) and Joanneum Research (Austria), is currently developing and testing a vision-based software package which builds 3-D models and localises the aerobot using vision data. The project will deliver two main components, namely: an Imagery-based Localisation Package (ILP) module [...] and a test framework to validate and evaluate the ILP module.

SciSys is also working on advanced rovers able to perform complex tasks autonomously without the need for ground assistance.

SciSys is currently carrying out research into Intelligent Planning and Scheduling (IPS) which offers engineers the prospect of having a rover which can validate their activity plans with real-time information and repair these plans autonomously should they fail.

Below is an illustration showing how humans could use such a rover, the ExoMars rover more precisely (Credit: ESA/AEOS - Medialab). You can find more details about what SciSys is doing on these pages about Aurora and the ExoMars Rover.

Humans and robots on Mars

For your viewing pleasure, here is a more detailed view of the design of the ExoMars rover (Credit: ESA). You can also look at a larger version of this rover.

The future ExoMars rover

And if you want more information about these projects, here are two links to ESA pages about the Aurora Exploration Program and to the ExoMars rover project.

Sources: Andy Smith, Mark Woods and Martin Townend, ERCIM News, April 2006; and various web sites

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