Astrobotic Lunar Rover Technology Selected for SBIR Phase I Award

Astrobotic's Polaris lunar rover. (Credit: Astrobotic Technology)
Astrobotic’s Polaris lunar rover. (Credit: Astrobotic Technology)

NASA has selected Astrobotic Technology for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I award worth up to $125,000 for the development of technology that will allow lunar prospecting rovers to search for ice and other volatiles in the extreme conditions of polar craters.

“Current planetary rover planning technologies are not designed for these environments and have avoided them altogether, operating only in mid-latitudes,” according to a summary of the project, which focuses on allowing the rovers to operate with a degree of autonomy.

“The proposed research innovates an Earth-based, resource-aware path planner for a polar prospecting rover. The proposed planner models progress toward the goal while considering resource costs inherent in that progress, generates and explores the space of possible paths, then transmits a set of low-cost viable paths to goal to the rover. The set of viable paths then resides on the rover to inform limited re-planning if the rover encounters a hazard during traverse, even during communications dropout.

“The planner considers all of the impacts on polar rover operation – light angles that change over time, thermal operating window, sun angles and blinding light, and communications-shadowed regions. Each of these impacts affects one of the rover’s resources – where it can go, what it can see, how cold it can get, how much battery charge remains, and whether it can communicate with its operator.”

A full summary of the proposal follows.

PROPOSAL SUMMARY

PROPOSAL TITLE: Resource-Aware Planning for Shadowed and Uncertain Domains

SUBTOPIC TITLE: Human-Robotic Systems – Manipulation Subsystem

SMALL BUSINESS CONCERN
Astrobotic Technology, Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR/PROJECT MANAGER
Kevin Peterson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Discovery of frozen volatiles at the lunar poles is transformative to space exploration. In-situ resources will provide fuel to support far-reaching exploration and enable commercial endeavors. While satellite data supports presence of polar ice, driving and drilling must confirm presence, determine composition, and measure distribution. Ice exists primarily in the dark and cold of polar craters. Current planetary rover planning technologies are not designed for these environments and have avoided them altogether, operating only in mid-latitudes.

The proposed research innovates an Earth-based, resource-aware path planner for a polar prospecting rover. The proposed planner models progress toward the goal while considering resource costs inherent in that progress, generates and explores the space of possible paths, then transmits a set of low-cost viable paths to goal to the rover. The set of viable paths then resides on the rover to inform limited re-planning if the rover encounters a hazard during traverse, even during communications dropout. The planner considers all of the impacts on polar rover operation – light angles that change over time, thermal operating window, sun angles and blinding light, and communications-shadowed regions. Each of these impacts affects one of the rover’s resources – where it can go, what it can see, how cold it can get, how much battery charge remains, and whether it can communicate with its operator.

Design of the proposed planner will build on pioneering research at Carnegie Mellon that developed TEMPEST, a temporal-aware, mission-based planner that maximized battery power over a traverse. It was demonstrated using the Hyperion rover, achieving a sun-synchronous traverse of Haughton Crater. The polar environment is both adversarial and unpredictable, and the proposed planner will extend the TEMPEST to account for the unique challenges of navigating on the poles of planetary bodies and add nondeterministic planning.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

NASA’s Technology Roadmap TA04, Robotics, Telerobotics and Autonomous Systems, identifies autonomous navigation as one of three impact areas for technology development. The proposed work enhances development of autonomous navigation by building on the successes of the Mars Science Laboratory and other rovers’ use of locally acquired data to refine and potentially modify Earth-generated plans without human intervention or approval. By adjusting relative parameters in the planning model, Earth-based controllers can set the bounds on local authority, response, and operational capabilities while maximizing operational advantages of locally-centered decision making. Phase II results will advance technologies to TRL 5, ready for assimilation into NASA missions.

Existing NASA collaborations will drive infusion of the developed technologies into future missions. Technical Advisor William “Red” Whittaker collaborates deeply with NASA’s autonomy experts. Astrobotic intends to produce lunar and planetary rovers encompassing these technologies as build-to-order rovers or as technology licenses. Active Astrobotic contracts with NASA are defining rover missions to carry the RESOLVE payload, excavate on the Moon, and provide data from a lunar mission. Relationships curated through these contracts provide additional paths for technology infusion, and results will be promoted through all NASA partnerships and collaborations.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Resource-aware planning provides significant advances over state-of-art autonomous navigation, mapping, and localization for terrestrial applications. The need for low cost, computationally inexpensive, and easy to integrate autonomous navigation and mapping applies broadly to terrestrial applications particularly those that are GPS-denied. Potential applications include driverless cars, search and rescue, mining, military UGVs and UAVs, and agriculture.

Vision-guided UAVs offer a particularly good fit for resource-constrained planning. As small UAVs become more common for surveillance and scouting, the need to reduce operator load will become paramount. With a wide array of sensor suites producing dense data sets, enabling vehicles to make decisions on-board within operator-defined bounds allows an operator to concentrate on high-level mission objectives rather than low-level vehicle operations. The proposed work is particularly suited to terrestrial applications where only low-fidelity data is available for initial planning; by creating a provisional plan to be optimized by future high-fidelity measurements, the overall mission objective can be completed with an minimum of waste. The result is an optimized use of limited resources, including overhead time and ground-based manpower.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

  • Algorithms/Control Software & Systems (see also Autonomous Systems)
  • Characterization
  • Man-Machine Interaction
  • Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Navigation & Guidance
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Simulation & Modeling
  • Spacecraft Design, Construction, Testing, & Performance (see also Engineering; Testing & Evaluation)
    Telemetry/Tracking (Cooperative/Noncooperative; see also Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)