Despite the fact that landing on Mars is hard, robotic rovers and landers have now become a regular feature of Mars exploration. These advanced exploratory machines are sending back unprecedented information about this fascinating red world. One limitation, however, has been that rovers and landers are still, for the most part, controlled by human operators back on Earth. On January 2, 2019, the U.K. government announced the testing of new software that’ll help make future rovers more autonomous – “smarter” and more capable of making their own decisions, such as deciding where to go and how to get there – i.e. self-driving.
Mars is a very difficult planet to land safely on, so it’s essential to maximize the discoveries from each successful touchdown. New autonomous robot technology like this will help to further unlock Mars’ mysteries, and I’m delighted that the U.K. is a key player in this cutting-edge field.
A variety of new technologies were tested, including data fusion systems, a plug-and-play sensor suite and an open-source operating system for robotic control. More specifically, according to the press release:
The ERGO Autonomy framework: The autonomy framework lets the rover make decisions by itself without the need for human intervention. These decisions could be about the path a rover needs to take to get to its destination. It also means the rover can make decisions about managing its resources, for example shutting down certain functions to conserve power. It will also give the rover the ability to investigate things it deems to be interesting, things which human operators might miss.
The INFUSE Data Fusion: Data fusion is about the fusing together of data from different sensors and sources in order to create useful information such as maps, which the rover can then use to navigate successfully across the difficult Martian landscape. The data will be provided by different types of camera, sensors, trackers and torches to give the rover a full understanding of the Martian world around it.
The I3DS Plug And Play Sensor Suite: The rover needs various sensors to enable it to see, perceive and understand the Martian world. Using a ‘plug-and-play’ approach means that sensors can be installed and removed easily according to the mission requirements. The Sensor suite also has a unique, built-in computer called an ICU (Integration Control Unit) that processes the signals from the sensors into information before passing that information to the Data Fusion system.
The ESROCOS Operating System: Robots need operating systems to function, just like your computer, tablet, phone or laptop at home. The operating system provides the low-level software and libraries required by the robot to undertake basic functions. It also provides the language and framework with which the other software (such as the ERGO Autonomy Framework and the INFUSE Data Fusion) must adhere in order to create a coherent and integrated system. In other words, this is the core software that provides the rules which bind all the other systems and software together.
Current rovers are limited to driving a few dozen meters (yards) per day, but with the new software, future rovers could travel up to a kilometer (.6 miles) per day, a big improvement which would let rovers investigate a greater number of scientifically interesting locations during their missions.
Various companies and universities in the U.K. participated in the testing, including Airbus Defence & Space, Thales Alenia Space, Scisys, King’s College London, the University of Strathclyde and GMV-UK. The software testing was conducted at the Ibn Battuta Test Centre in Morocco in December 2018. The Ibn Battuta Test Centre is named after the 14th century Islamic explorer, and is used extensively for testing Mars rovers, since the red, rocky terrain is quite similar to the surface of Mars. The tests are part of a series of research projects for the Strategic Research Cluster, which is funded by the European Commission via the Horizon 2020 program.
Engineers from across Europe were also involved, including from the U.K. Space Agency and German, French, Spanish, Italian and European Space Agencies (ESA).
More advanced self-driving technology will be essential for future Mars rovers, so they can navigate the terrain without needing to be so dependent on human engineers uploading commands to them from Earth. NASA’s Curiosity rover does have a certain amount of autonomous capability, but it will need to be improved as new rovers land in potentially even more challenging terrain, including the upcoming Mars 2020 rover (NASA) and ExoMars rover (ESA).
Bottom line: New self-driving software being designed and tested by the U.K. via Europe’s Horizon 2020 program will help future Mars rovers travel faster and farther without human assistance.