On May 1, 2009, after five years on Mars, he appeared spirit The rover is stuck in a patch of soft sand (where it will remain for the rest of its mission). On February 13, 2019, NASA officials announced that Spirit’s sister – the Chance Rover – Completed its mission after a planetary dust storm forced it into hibernation about seven months ago. And in March 2017, . was released Curiosity of The rover’s wheels showed signs of the first crash, thanks to years of traveling over rugged terrain. These are the risks of sending rover missions to other planets in search of discoveries that could lead to scientific breakthroughs.

But what constitutes an acceptable risk for a robotic mission, and when are mission controllers justified in taking them? As it turns out, two researchers from the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh have developed a new approach to weighing the risks against the scientific value of sending planetary craft into dangerous situations. The researchers are now working with NASA to implement their approach for future robotic missions to the Moon, Mars, and other potentially hazardous environments in the Solar System.

The research team included David Wettergren, a research professor at the Rwandan Research Institute, and Alberto Candela, a former PhD in robotics. Student with RI and current data scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The paper describing their approach, titled “An Approach to Risk-Aware Planetary Science and Exploration,” was presented by Wettergren and Candela at the IEEE and RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems – held October 23-27, in Kyoto, Japan.

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Robotics Institute researchers have developed a new approach to modeling to balance the risks of sending autonomous robots to new places with the value of what can be discovered there. Credit: RI/CMU

Robotic expeditions measure scientific value based on their confidence in the interpretation of mineral data from rock surveys. If you conclude that they have correctly determined the mineral composition of the rocks without the need for additional measurements, you may decide to explore elsewhere. If her confidence is low, she may decide to continue studying the current area to improve the accuracy of her readings. For their new approach, Wettergreen and Candela combined models that weigh the scientific value of the area against any potential rover risks.

As Wettergren, who has worked on independent planetary exploration for decades at Carnegie Mellon University, summarized in a NASA press release:

“We looked at how to weigh the risks associated with going to difficult places against the value of what you might discover there. This is the next step in autonomous navigation and producing more and better data to help scientists.”

To measure the hazards, Wettergreen and Candela relied on a model that collects data about the terrain and the physical makeup of the local terrain to determine how difficult it would be for the rover to reach its destination. For example, sloping terrain with loose sand (a major concern on Mars) may present a high degree of risk, as the rover could slip while trying to climb up the slope and end up buried. This is exactly what happened to spirit Rover in 2004 when it got stuck in a dune, and its wheels skidded when it tried to move.

The team tested their framework using a simulation based on real Martian surface data. By navigating a simulated rover through these terrains, they mapped out different paths based on varying hazards, and then assessed the science these missions had. “The rover worked very well on its own,” Candela said. “Even with high-risk simulations, there are still plenty of areas for the craft to explore, and we’ve found that we’re still making interesting discoveries.”

Zoë, an autonomous rover, dug into the soil of the Atacama Desert in 2013 and discovered unusual highly specialized microbes. Credit: RI/CMU

This new approach builds on work dating back to the 1980s, in which researchers proposed and demonstrated methods that would allow rovers to navigate the surface of other planets. This includes the Ambler, a six-meter (20-foot) long robot developed by scientists at CMU that was tested in the 1990s. This robot demonstrated how probe missions can prioritize their targets and chart their own paths in extraterrestrial environments, inspiring additional robotic test bases.

One example is the Rattler, a four-wheeled, skid-steer robot developed by Sandia National Laboratories as a test bed for lunar navigation programs. This was followed by the Nomad, an experimental vehicle being tested in the Atacama Desert in the summer of 1997. Then there was Hyperion, a project led by Wettergreen that built a rover designed for Sun-synchronous Automated Exploration (SSRE) — in which a robot follows the sun to preserve its batteries that Solar powered charged. Since 2004, researchers at CMU have used the Zoë chariot as a testbed for autonomous navigation and exploration technologies.

This included an earlier version of the method developed by Wettergreen and Candela. As of 2012, Zoë has conducted tests in the Atacama Desert, traveling hundreds of kilometers to test autonomous exploration and sample collection systems. In 2013, the rover decided to drill at a site that had discovered highly specialized microbes, illustrating how automaton systems can lead to valuable scientific returns. In the future, Candela and Wettergreen hope to use Zoë to test their new method in the Utah desert. As Wettergreen said:

“Our goal is not to exclude scientists, not to exclude a person from an investigation. Really, the goal is to enable the automated system to be more productive for scientists. Our goal is to collect more and better data for scientists to use in their investigations.”

Artist’s conception of a Mars exploration rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit. credit: NASA

They also expect their research to be of great value for future lunar exploration, which includes NASA’s long-awaited return to the Moon (Artemis Program). In anticipation of sending manned missions to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo era, robotic missions need to explore local terrain, explore resources, and assess potential dangers to astronauts. Scientists can use Wettergreen and Candela’s new approach as a tool to pre-determine potential routes and weigh the risks of travel with the potential for major scientific discoveries.

Their approach could also help the next generation of roving vehicles dispatched to remote sites where continuous human intervention is impractical. This includes astrobiology missions to Europe, Titan and other objects that could reveal evidence of extraterrestrial life. For missions closer to home, autonomous systems that can assess risks will also provide mission controllers to focus on the interpretation of scientific data.

In-depth reading: Carnegie Mellon UniversityAnd the IEEE Xplore

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