18. October 2016

Robots on a journey – DFKI scientists simulate a space mission in Mars-analogue Utah desert

A barren, rocky desert landscape and not a single soul around – to come as close as possible to the inhospitable conditions on the Red Planet, scientists of the Robotics Innovation Center of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) will test the cooperation of various robot systems in the semi-desert of the American state of Utah from 24 October to 18 November 2016. The robots SherpaTT and Coyote III of the transfer project TransTerrA went on a journey already at the beginning of September.

The barren, rocky desert landscape in Utah provides optimal conditions for mars simulations (credit: DFKI GmbH, photo: Florian Cordes)

The systems involved in the space scenario: SherpaTT (left), Coyote III (right, in the crater) and the BaseCamp with an attached payload-item (foreground) (credit: DFKI GmbH, photo: Florian Cordes)

The recognition that Utah’s semi-desert is particularly well-suited as a test area for Mars missions is not new: since 2011, the Mars Society operates the Mars Desert Research Station in the south of the state near the small town Hanksville; a research station with space habitat, regularly used to simulate manned Mars stays. Just north of it, the DFKI scientists will test various robotic systems as part of a four-week field test campaign funded by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) within the project FT-Utah (Field Trials Utah). The systems are part of the ongoing project TransTerrA, which aims at the development of space technologies and their transfer to terrestrial applications. This includes the implementation of a space mission, in the course of which a robot team has to fulfill complex tasks autonomously. The field tests in Utah offer scientists the first opportunity to test the mission processes in a natural, realistic environment.

Safely stowed in a shipping container, two DFKI robots started their journey across the Atlantic at the beginning of September: The first one is the hybrid walking and driving rover SherpaTT which – thanks to its active suspension system – overcomes skillfully even difficult terrain and is able to transport larger payload, such as additional sensors, batteries or tools at the same time. Different sensors let him explore his environment autonomously, and a robot arm allows him to manipulate objects in many different ways. In addition, the rover is equipped with several electro-mechanical interfaces, by means of which it can adapt to different mission scenarios. The second robot is a micro rover named Coyote III, with a particular high mobility performance in unstructured terrains due to its hybrid legged wheels. This rover, too, is equipped with sensors for autonomous exploration and additional interfaces that enable e.g. the docking of manipulators and other payload modules.

The focus of the field test campaign in Utah is on the simulation of a so-called sample-return mission: soil samples from the Martian surface are returned to Earth for analysis. In order to achieve this, a logistic chain is set up by the two rovers using the BaseCamp for charging the batteries and data transmission, and payload items as supportive elements. The task of SherpaTT is a detailed exploration of the environment and taking soil samples using its manipulator arm. The smaller Coyote III takes the role of a shuttle collecting the samples taken and transporting them back to the landing station. At the same time in Bremen: the mission sequence is remote-controlled at times via satellite link in a ground control station established at the Robotics Innovation Center. From here, a human operator wearing a portable torso exoskeleton is able to engage in the mission performed thousands of kilometers away and to control the robots directly.

Back in Germany the results of the field test campaign will be integrated in the project TransTerrA. Another question in this context is, how systems and technologies developed for space missions can be transferred to terrestrial applications. In fact, robots that are able to perform tasks under the harsh conditions of foreign planets, are also qualified for hostile environments on Earth, such as the deep sea or areas that are contaminated due to industrial accidents.

The project FT-Utah is funded by the German Space Agency of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) with federal funds of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi) in accordance with the parliamentary resolution of the German Parliament.

More information: dfki.de/robotics/research/projects/ft-utah.html
Follow the DFKI scientists on twitter: twitter.com/ft_utah

German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI GmbH)
Robotics Innovation Center
Prof. Dr. Frank Kirchner
Mail: Frank.Kirchner@dfki.de
Phone: +49 421 178 45 4100

Press contact:
German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI GmbH)
Corporate communications Bremen
Mail: uk-hb@dfki.de
Phone: +49 421 178 45 4180

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