Mars rover testing in Sahara

Self-driving Martian robots complete Saharan test drive

Image credit: UK Space Agency

An autonomous Martian robot running on software developed in the UK has completed its test drive in the Sahara Desert.

The new software systems were mounted onto a four-wheeled rover called ‘Sherpa’, provided by the German Robotics Innovation Centre DFKI. In the test, the rover travelled over 1.4km without human interaction.

The software will eventually enable future Mars rovers to make their own decisions about where to go and how to get there once they have been safely delivered to the Red Planet, driving up to a kilometre per day.

In turn, their autonomous nature and independent exploration of the surface of Mars could deliver greater scientific returns per mission. As commands issued from Earth to Mars can take up to eight minutes to reach a rover, hand-guided robots are limited to travelling only a few dozen metres per day.

Companies and universities from around the UK including Airbus Defence & Space, Thales Alenia Space, Scisys, King’s College London, the University of Strathclyde, and GMV-UK participated in the software testing at Ibn Battuta Test Centre in Morocco in December 2018.

Catherine Mealing-Jones, director of growth at the UK Space Agency, said: “Mars is a very difficult planet to land safely on, so it’s essential to maximise 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 UK is a key player in this cutting-edge field.”

Over the course of a month, the team - consisting of engineers from companies all across Europe - was co-ordinated by representatives from the UK Space Agency as well as the German, French, Spanish, Italian and European Space Agencies (ESA). The software suite tested on board the rover comprised the Ergo Autonomy framework (enabling the rover to make decisions by itself); the Infuse Data Fusion (which fuses together data from different sensors and sources in order to create useful navigation information); the I3DS plug-and-play sensor suite (so the rover can perceive and understand the Martian world) and finally the Esrocos operating system (the operating system required by the robot to undertake basic functions).

The Ibn Battuta test centre in Morocco, named after the 14th century Islamic explorer of the same name, is a popular site for testing Mars rovers as the red, rocky terrain is similar to the surface of the Red Planet.

The tests are part of a series of research projects of a programme called the Space Robotics Strategic Research Cluster, funded by the European Commission via the Horizon 2020 Programme.

Airbus, which has offices in Stevenage, is the prime contractor for the new European Space Agency (ESA) Exomars rover, due to land on Mars in 2020. Following a public competition last year, the UK Space Agency will announce the name of the new UK-built rover this spring.

The UK Space Agency is the second-largest European contributor to ExoMars, having invested €287 million in the mission and £14 million on the instruments. This, in addition to successful negotiations with ESA, secured key mission contracts for the UK space sector.

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