Astrobotic, Carnegie Mellon University Project Aims to Control Multiple Planetary Robots

CubeRover on the moon (Credit: Astrobotic)

Astrobotic Technology and Carnegie Mellon University will develop methods that will allow planetary rovers to work together to explore the surface of other worlds under a NASA contract.

The space agency selected a proposal by the partners for funding under the Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) program. The 13-month contract is worth a maximum of $125,000.

“Cooperative robots can explore the surface of planets with higher efficiency and lower mission risk, perform novel and precise resource and science surveys, and gather and share resources and information with other assets to bring planetary exploration,” according to the proposal summary.

To be effective, however, the rovers would need to know where they are in relation to each other. This, in turn, creates requirements for high-end range sensors, high-fidelity vision, and powerful onboard computers that create challenges for spacecraft designers, who are limited by weight and energy requirements.

“Adding these computing and sensor demands on paired and multi-agent systems begins to defeat the purpose – paired exploration is advantageous precisely because it can be used to field more minimalist robots that can devote energy to rapid traverse, multi-angle inspections, or specific scientific instruments,” the summary said.

Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon will instead develop methods that include relative observations and localization uncertainty for planning rover paths.

The partners also see Earth-based applications.

“Robots with better collaborative situational awareness could provide a greater level of human safety, more efficient work planning, or better protection for capital equipment,” the summary states. “For example, in agriculture, the ability to share localization data within robot teams could improve the ability of robots to perform numerous tasks, from monitoring to seeding to harvesting.”

The proposal summary follows.

Proposal Title:
Mission Coordination and Co-Localization for Planetary Rover Teams

Subtopic Title:
Coordination and Control of Swarms of Space Vehicles

Small Business Concern (SBC):
Astrobotic Technology, Inc.
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Research Institution (RI):
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Principal Investigator
William Whittaker

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Cooperative robots can explore the surface of planets with higher efficiency and lower mission risk, perform novel and precise resource and science surveys, and gather and share resources and information with other assets to bring planetary exploration. In order to work together more efficiently and effectively, robots must understand their location relative to their peers, which is challenged in planetary exploration by the fact that these environments lack global positioning systems to enable a robot to understand its absolute location in space.

State-of-the-art simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) techniques can accurately localize without explicit pose sensing, but also require high-end range sensors, high-fidelity vision, and powerful onboard computing. Adding these computing and sensor demands on paired and multi-agent systems begins to defeat the purpose – paired exploration is advantageous precisely because it can be used to field more minimalist robots that can devote energy to rapid traverse, multi-angle inspections, or specific scientific instruments.

The proposed work will develop two key techniques to improve the foundation for cooperative planetary robotic missions:

1. Novel methods for co-localizing multiple robots using relative observations

2. Methods for planning multi-robot paths that reduce localization uncertainty and improve positioning accuracy of robot teams.

This research will enable more accurate localization of multiple planetary exploration robots without requiring high-fidelity sensing and powerful compute.

Potential NASA Applications

Rover co-localization could expand science surface missions by enabling multi-rover missions to explore more efficiently and to localize themselves with more precision. We envision this technology in multi-rover bulk surveys of volatile concentrations, where many small rovers collect data to build a map of distribution. Other distributed science applications can benefit from accurately localized small rovers. The developed techniques also scale to combined UAV and surface rover missions.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Robots with better collaborative situational awareness could provide a greater level of human safety, more efficient work planning, or better protection for capital equipment. For example, in agriculture, the ability to share localization data within robot teams could improve the ability of robots to perform numerous tasks, from monitoring to seeding to harvesting.