Six Wheels (En)rolling: Mars Rovers Going To School

Few things build excitement like going to space. It captures the imagination of young and old alike. Teachers love to leverage the latest space news to raise interest in their students, and space agencies are happy to provide resources to help. The latest in a long line of educator resources released by NASA is an Open Source Rover designed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JPL is the birthplace of Mars rovers Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. They’ve been researching robotic explorers for decades, so it’s no surprise they have many rovers running around. The open source rover’s direct predecessor is ROV-E, whose construction process closely followed procedures for engineering space flight hardware. This gave a team of early career engineers experience in the process before they built equipment destined for space. In addition to learning various roles within a team, they also learned to work with JPL resources like submitting orders to the machine shop to make ROV-E parts.

Once completed, ROV-E became a fixture at JPL public events and occasionally visits nearby schools as part of educational outreach programs. And inevitably a teacher at the school would ask “The kids love ROV-E! Can we make our own rover?” Since most schools don’t have 5-axis CNC machines or autoclaves to cure carbon fiber composites, the answer used to be “No.”

Until now.

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The Photo Lab That Flew to the Moon

When planning a trip by car these days, it’s pretty much standard practice to spin up an image of your destination in Google Maps and get an idea of what you’re in for when you get there. What kind of parking do they have? Are the streets narrow or twisty? Will I be able to drive right up, or will I be walking a bit when I get there? It’s good to know what’s waiting for you, especially if you’re headed someplace you’ve never been before.

NASA was very much of this mind in the 1960s, except the trip they were planning for was 238,000 miles each way and would involve parking two humans on the surface of another world that we had only seen through telescopes. As good as Earth-based astronomy may be, nothing beats an up close and personal look, and so NASA decided to send a series of satellites to our nearest neighbor to look for the best places to land the Apollo missions. And while most of the feats NASA pulled off in the heyday of the Space Race were surprising, the Lunar Orbiter missions were especially so because of how they chose to acquire the images: using a film camera and a flying photo lab.

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Robot Rovers of the Early Space Race

In the early 1970s, the American space program was at a high point, having placed astronauts upon the surface of the moon while their Soviet competitors had not taken them beyond an Earth orbit. It is however a simplistic view to take this as meaning that NASA had the lead in all aspects of space exploration, because while Russians had not walked the surface of our satellite they had achieved a less glamorous feat of lunar exploration that the Americans had not. The first Lunokhod wheeled rover had reached the lunar surface and explored it under the control of earth-bound engineers in the closing months of 1970, and while the rovers driven by Apollo astronauts had placed American treadmarks in the  lunar soil and been reproduced on newspaper front pages and television screens worldwide, they had yet to match the Soviet achievements with respect to autonomy and remote control.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory there was a project to develop technology for future American rovers under the leadership of [Dr. Ewald Heer], and we have a fascinating insight into it thanks to the reminiscences of [Mike Blackstone], then a junior engineer.

The aim of the project was to demonstrate the feasibility of a rover exploring a planetary surface, picking up, and examining rocks. Lest you imagine a billion dollar budget for gleaming rover prototypes, it’s fair to say that this was to be achieved with considerably more modest means. The rover was a repurposed unit that had previously been used for remote handling of hazardous chemicals, and the project’s computer was an extremely obsolete DEC PDP-1.

We are treated to an in-depth description of the rover and its somewhat arcane control system. Sadly we have no pictures save for his sketches as the whole piece rests upon his recollections, but it sounds an interesting machine in its own right. Heavily armoured against chemical explosions, its two roughly-humanoid arms were operated entirely by chains similar to bicycle chains, with all motors resting in its shoulders. A vision system was added in the form of a pair of video cameras on motorised mounts, these could be aimed at an object using a set of crosshairs on each of their monitors, and their angles read off manually by the operator from the controls. These readings could then be entered into the PDP-1, upon which the software written by [Mike] could calculate the position of an object, calculate the required arm positions to retrieve it, and command the rover to perform the required actions.

The program was a success, producing a film for evaluation by the NASA bigwigs. If it still exists it would be fascinating to see it, perhaps our commenters may know where it might be found. Meanwhile if the current JPL research on rovers interests you, you might find this 2017 Hackaday Superconference talk to be of interest.

Thanks [JRD] for the tip.

NASA Remotely Hacks Curiosity’s Rock Drill

We have a lot of respect for the hackers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). When their stuff has a problem, it is often millions of miles away and yet they often find a way to fix it anyway. Case in point is the Curiosity Mars rover. Back in 2016, the probe’s rock drill broke. This is critical because one of the main things the rover does is drill into rock samples, collect the powder and subject it to analysis. JPL announced they had devised a way to successfully drill again.

The drill failed after fifteen uses. It uses two stabilizers to steady itself against the target rock. A failed motor prevents the drill bit from retracting and extending between the stabilizers. Of course, sending a repair tech 60 million miles is not in the budget, so they had to find another way. You can see a video about the way they found, below.

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InSight Brings New Tech to Mars

Unless you’ve got your ear on the launch pad so to speak, you might not be aware that humanity just launched a new envoy towards the Red Planet. Estimated to touch down in Elysium Planitia on November 26th, the InSight lander is relatively low-key as far as interplanetary missions go. Part of the NASA’s “Discovery Program”, it operates on a considerably lower budget than Flagship missions such as the Curiosity rover; meaning niceties like a big advertising and social media campaign to get the public excited doesn’t get a line item.

Which is a shame, because not only are there much worse things to do with tax money than increase public awareness of scientific endeavours, but because InSight frankly deserves a bit more respect than that. Featuring a number of firsts, the engineers and scientists behind InSight might have been short on dollars, but ambition was in ample supply.

So in honor of the successful launch, let’s take a look at the InSight mission, the unique technology onboard, and the answers scientists hope it will be able to find out there in the black.

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Extraterrestrial Autonomous Lander Systems to Touch Down on Mars

The future of humans is on Mars. Between SpaceX, Boeing, NASA, and every other national space program, we’re going to Mars. With this comes a problem: flying to Mars is relatively easy, but landing a large payload on the surface of another planet is orders of magnitude more difficult. Mars, in particular, is tricky: it has just enough atmosphere that you need to design around it, but not enough where we can use only parachutes to bring several tons down to the surface. On top of this, we’ll need to land our habitats and Tesla Roadsters inside a very small landing ellipse. Landing on Mars is hard and the brightest minds are working on it.

At this year’s Hackaday Superconference, we learned how hard landing on Mars is from Ara Kourchians (you may know him as [Arko]) and Steve Collins, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in beautiful Pasadena. For the last few years, they’ve been working on COBALT, a technology demonstrator on how to use machine vision, fancy IMUs, and a host of sensors to land autonomously on alien worlds. You can check out the video of their Supercon talk below.

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High-Speed Drones Use AI to Spoil the Fun

Some people look forward to the day when robots have taken over all our jobs and given us an economy where we can while our days away on leisure activities. But if your idea of play is drone racing, you may be out of luck if this AI pilot for high-speed racing drones has anything to say about it.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has been working for the past two years to develop the algorithms needed to let high-performance UAVs navigate typical drone racing obstacles, and from the look of the tests in the video below, they’ve made a lot of progress. The system is vision based, with the AI drones equipped with wide-field cameras looking both forward and down. The indoor test course has seemingly random floor tiles scattered around, which we guess provide some kind of waypoints for the drones. A previous video details a little about the architecture, and it seems the drones are doing the computer vision on-board, which we find pretty impressive.

Despite the program being bankrolled by Google, we’re sure no evil will come of this, and that we’ll be in no danger of being chased down by swarms of high-speed flying killbots anytime soon. For now we can take solace in the fact that JPL’s algorithms still can’t beat an elite human pilot like [Ken Loo], who bested the bots overall. But alarmingly, the human did no better than the bots on his first lap, which suggests that once the AI gets a little creativity and intuition like that needed to best a Go champion, [Ken] might need to find another line of work.

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