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Teamwork in space: Robots pave the way for crewed lunar missions and sustainable space research

To survive on the moon, humans need a lot of resources. Transporting them to the earth's satellite by spaceship would be extremely expensive. There is a much cheaper and sustainable solution: special manufacturing plants that can extract and process raw materials directly on site. For this purpose, a European consortium with the participation of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) developed technologies in the "Pro-Act" project that allow several robots to cooperate in the construction of these plants and perform complex tasks in preparation for human missions. The successfully completed project was funded by the European Commission.

The walking robot Mantis and the rover VELES during tests on the DFKI's outdoor premises in Bremen (DFKI GmbH, Photo: Annemarie Popp)

Scientists of the project consortium during the joint tests at the DFKI in Bremen in September 2020 (DFKI GmbH, Photo: Annemarie Popp)

Animated mission scenario in which Mantis and VELES jointly unload components from a landing module (DFKI GmbH, Animation: Meltem Fischer)

Mantis during the final tests in March 2021 in the Space Exploration Hall of the DFKI in Bremen – the project partners were able to access the system via remote connection. (DFKI GmbH, Photo: Meltem Fischer)

The time is set for 2025: That is when the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch the first demonstration mission to the moon for the so-called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). With the help of ISRU technologies, raw materials available on foreign planets can be used to produce resources required for space missions, such as drinking water, oxygen or building materials for human habitats, which would otherwise have to be brought from Earth at great expense. Not only does this save immense costs. The technologies are also of great importance when it comes to sustainable space exploration. Additionally, robotic systems will play a crucial role in the construction and assembly of ISRU plants, further reducing the costs and risks of a human mission.

Basic technologies for robotic collaboration on the moon

In preparation for future crewed missions on alien planets, robots must be able to operate autonomously as a team to perform complex tasks, such as conducting scientific investigations or building infrastructure. The goal of the Pro-Act project, which started in February 2019, was to develop the necessary basic technologies for this purpose and to demonstrate their functionality in a lunar mission scenario. The European Commission funded the project in the second phase of the Strategic Research Cluster (SRC) "Space Robotics Technologies" as part of the PERASPERA activity under the Horizon 2020 program. With its long-standing expertise in the field of space robotics, DFKI's Robotics Innovation Center was part of the project consortium, led by the Belgian company Space Applications Services, which consisted of a total of nine European companies and institutions from six different countries.

Heterogeneous robotic team cooperates to build ISRU plant 

The project focused on the collaboration of three different types of robotic systems – the six-legged walking robot "Mantis" from DFKI, the rover "VELES" from the Polish company PIAP Space, and the Mobile Gantry from the Spanish company AVS – whose common goal is to build an ISRU plant with supporting infrastructure. To do so, the heterogeneous team of robots combined their strengths: Thanks to its six limbs, of which it can also use the two in front for manipulation, the walking robot Mantis is characterized by a high degree of flexibility and masters even difficult terrain. The VELES rover can cover longer distances and transport particularly heavy payloads with the aid of its robotic arm. The Mobile Gantry, which can be deployed autonomously or with the support of Mantis and VELES, has a cables-based end effector that can grasp object and serve as a 3D printer. In Pro-Act, the printing of components for the assembly of the ISRU plant using the regolith available on the Moon was simulated, to validate its feasibility in a real mission. To enable autonomous cooperation among the three robots, the project partners further developed the software and hardware technologies that emerged from the SRC's predecessor projects and adapted them to the PRO-ACT scenario. Thanks to the ability to set cooperative goals, collaborative mission planning, and manipulation, the robotic systems were able to work together, helping each other to accomplish various tasks.

DFKI contributes important hardware and software solutions / Successful despite the Coronavirus pandemic

In addition to the further development and adaptation of Mantis to the mission scenario on the software and hardware side, the Robotics Innovation Center was also responsible for providing a simulation environment. This allowed the partners to test their software on robot simulations before it was implemented on the 'real' systems. This way, many problems could be detected and corrected at an early stage. In addition, the Bremen researchers developed interfaces that enabled the use of the partners’ software on Mantis. Finally, the cooperation of the robots was to be tested in the space exploration hall of the DFKI. However, these plans were thwarted by the Coronavirus pandemic: not all partners were able to travel to the first joint tests in September 2020, so the robotic team remained incomplete. The final tests in March 2021 had to be performed completely virtually via remote connection in 4 different locations, which posed further challenges, such as unstable Internet connections and time delays, especially regarding the cooperation of the robots. Despite all this, the partners adapted to those complex challenges, employing efficient planning, communication, and remote support strategies, and in the end managed to successfully demonstrate how this team of robots can work together to create environment maps and transport components. They also gained extensive experience in teleoperation that will be of great benefit to future planetary space missions.

Pro-Act Project Partners:

  • Space Applications Services NV, Belgium – Consortium leader
  • German Research Center of Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), Robotics Innovation Center, Germany
  • GMV Aerospace and Defence SA, Spain
  • Przemyslowy Instytut Automatyki i Pomiarow PIAP, Poland
  • Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique CNRS, France
  • City, University of London, Great Britain
  • AVS added Value Industrial Engineering Solutions SLU, Spain
  • La Palma Research Centre for Future Studies SL, Spain
  • Thales Alenia Space, Great Britain


DFKI in the Strategic Research Cluster "Space Robotics Technologies" of the European Commission

Within the framework of the Strategic Research Cluster (SRC) "Space Robotics Technologies", the European Commission is funding core technologies for a new generation of space robots with the aim of advancing orbital and planetary exploration of our solar system. The new technologies are to be used in the construction of modular and reconfigurable satellite systems as well as in the exploration of Mars, the moon, and other celestial bodies. The DFKI Robotics Innovation Center, headed by Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Frank Kirchner is a partner of the "PERASPERA (ad ASTRA)" consortium, which plans the strategic goals of the SRC and implements them in subprojects, so-called Operational Grants (OG). In the first two funding phases (2016-2019 and 2019-2021), the DFKI research area was involved in seven of the eleven OGs. In the third and final funding phase of the SRC, the Robotics Innovation Center is leading the CoRob-X project, launched in March 2021, in which it is researching with European partners how a team of multiple robots can cooperate to explore lava caves on the moon. DFKI is also involved in the PERIOD project, which aims to define an orbital demonstration concept for on-orbit servicing and increase the maturity of the required technologies.

More information
Project website: https://www.h2020-pro-act.eu/
Pro-Act on DFKI website: https://www.dfki.de/en/web/research/projects-and-publications/projects-overview/projekt/pro-act-og11/

Project videos
DFKI scientist Wiebke Brinkmann explains Pro-Act from a DFKI perspective: https://youtu.be/j2PA40GTsfs
The animation shows the Pro-Act mission scenario: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNNgcgPyEO8&t=88s
The Videos shows the project objectives and outcomes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVK68jOOuk4

Project Lead DFKI
Wiebke Brinkmann
German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI)
Robotics Innovation Center
Mail: wiebke.brinkmann@dfki.de

DFKI Press contact
German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI)
Team Corporate Communications Bremen
Mail: uk-hb@dfki.de
Phone: +49 421 17845 4180

© DFKI GmbH
last updated 19.02.2021
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