Exploration on Mars is for dogs. Robot dogs, that is.
Scientists are equipping four-legged robots, which mimic animals, with artificial intelligence (AI) and a series of detection equipment to help robots navigate autonomously on treacherous lands and underground caves on the Red Planet.
In a presentation on Dec. 14 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), held online this year, NASA / JPL-Caltech researchers presented their “Mars Dogs,” which can maneuver in different ways. iconic wheeled rovers such as Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and newly launched perseverance could never. The agility and endurance of the new robots are coupled with sensors that allow them to avoid obstacles, choose between multiple paths and build virtual maps of buried tunnels and caverns for home operators, AGU scientists said.
Related: Super-intelligent cars: 7 robotic futures
Traditional Mars rovers are mostly limited to flat surfaces, but many scientifically interesting Martian regions are only accessible by crossing very rugged terrain or going underground. Walking robotic “dogs” are well suited for such challenges – even if they fall, they can come back.
“The overthrow does not mean the failure of the mission,” the scientists said during the presentation. “Using recovery algorithms, the robot can self-correct from a multitude of falls.”
A Mars dog would also be about 12 times lighter than current rovers and would be able to travel much faster, reaching normal walking speeds of 5 km / h during tests. To put this in perspective, the Curiosity rover is running along the Martian surface at about 0.14 km / h (0.09 mph), the researchers reported.
On Mars, caves can provide shelter for future human colonies, providing natural protection against deadly ultraviolet radiation, extreme cold, and intense dust storms that can last for weeks and are sometimes large enough to be observed by Earth telescopes. according to NASA. Caves can also house evidence of life in Mars’ distant past or even provide a current home for organisms living deep underground, researchers told AGU. Robots with legs that can walk around rocks, descend into caves, and choose a path – while gathering measurements and building a map of what they “see” – could give scientists new opportunities to detect signs. of life beyond the Earth.
The autonomous canine Mars, nicknamed “Au-Spot”, is a modified version of “Place, “a four-legged mechanical explorer created by robotics company Boston Dynamics. More than 60 scientists and engineers from the Collaborative Underground Resilient Robots or CoSTAR team have equipped Au-Spot with sensors and network software to help it safely and autonomously scans, navigates and maps its environment.
Au-Spot processes input from Lidar (remote sensing using laser pulses), visual, thermal and motion sensors to create 3D maps. The Mars dog also uses AI to find out which structures should be avoided and to identify objects that may be of scientific interest, while a communications module allows the robot to transfer data to the surface while exploring underground.
CoSTAR team members test Au-Spot in a series of obstacle courses, introducing it through steps in tunnels and hallways; climbing stairs and ramps; and in open-air locations that mimic Martian landscapes, such as lava tubes in northern California. These demonstrations show that unrelated robots can navigate around boulders and map deep caves.
“These behaviors could one day allow revolutionary scientific missions to take place on the Martian surface and underground, pushing the boundaries of NASA’s ability to explore traditionally inaccessible sites,” scientists told AGU.
Originally published on Live Science.