Raspberry Pi space rover: NASA open-sources its mini Mars robot

Now you can have you're own six-wheel, rock-climbing rover robot for Earth exploration.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Video: How to set up your Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+.

Thanks to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Open Source Rover project, you can now build your own mini-version of the six-wheel Mars Curiosity rover robot.

JPL has released designs and instructions on the now Microsoft-owned GitHub for building the mini rover that presumably will be mostly Earth-bound, rather than roaming over Mars or any other planet, unless you're buddies with Elon Musk.

"We wanted to give back to the community and lower the barrier of entry by giving hands-on experience to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and programmers," said Tom Soderstrom, project sponsor for the Open Source Rover.

Fully built, the mini rover weighs 25lb (11.3kg) and will be 24-inches long and 14 inches wide with a maximum speed of 6.7 inches per second or about 0.4mph, so it won't exactly be one for fans of the faster radio-controlled cars, but is nonetheless comparatively true to the actual Curiosity rover.

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The real Curiosity travels at about 98ft (30m) per hour, weighs 1,982lb (899kg), and is about 9.5ft (2.9m) long by 8.9ft (2.7m) wide and 7.2ft (2.2m) high.

JPL released the instruction kit to show that it actually does take a rocket scientist to build one of these, but that those skills can also be learned by hobbyists and students.

"One would rightfully assume it takes expertise in mechanical engineering, software development, and electronics to even begin to construct such a complex robot," JPL says in its announcement.

"Now students, hobbyists, and enthusiasts can learn about these skills and get a taste of what it is like to construct such a rover using plans and instructions from JPL's Open Source Rover Project."

And it's chosen components that will excite fans of the Raspberry Pi.

"We chose a Raspberry Pi to be the 'brain' of this rover for its versatility, accessibility, simplicity, and ability to add and upgrade your own modifications," it notes on GitHub.

"Any method with which you can communicate with a Raspberry Pi (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB devices, etc) can be interfaced into the control system of the robot."

The vehicle is controlled using an Xbox controller and an Android app, and should cost less than $2,500 to build if makers follow JPL's suggested specifications.

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However, people can choose their own parts, such as buying higher-powered motors to make a faster rover, but JPL notes that such a move sacrifices the maximum stall torque, which could reduce the rover's climbing ability.

The mini rover has some of the designs of the Mars rover, including the Rocker-Bogie suspension system that allows all six wheels to stay grounded when climbing, the differential pivot, another climbing aid, and 'six-wheel Ackerman steering'.

SEE: NASA shows the world its 20-year virtual reality experiment to train astronauts: The inside story (cover story PDF)

Using the Raspberry's various ports, JPL notes that: "You could theoretically drive the rover autonomously from the camera, via a USB dongle attached to anything (your own video game controller, a USB microphone, or many others... be creative), or through any interface using the Pi's GPIO ports (distance sensors, accelerometers, and much more)."

There's also a community-maintained but NASA-hosted forum to help enthusiasts on their way to building their own Mars rover.

JPL expects the project would take 200 person-hours to build, depending on the builder's level of expertise and equipment.


NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Pi-based mini rover is controlled using an Xbox controller and an Android app.


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