The technology developed by researchers at West Virginia University (WVU) that helped them win the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge may be headed to Mars.
Majid Jaridi, professor of industrial and management systems engineering, and Yu Gu, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, have received a three-year, $750,000 grant from NASA to develop ways to increase the onboard autonomy of planetary rovers. The research team, which includes assistant professors Jason Gross and Victor Fragoso, will utilize the algorithms that powered Cataglyphis, which won more than $850,000 in the Sample Return Challenge, as its starting point.
“Several capabilities were acquired at WVU during the development of Cataglyphis, such as autonomous planetary rover design, mission planning and control, GPS-free navigation and homing, obstacle avoidance and vehicle health status management,” said Gu. “These technologies will provide a strong foundation to the success of this research project.”
NASA’s Mars Rover program has been a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Primary among the mission’s scientific goals is to search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. In 2020, the agency plans to launch a rover that will cache scientifically selected samples and leave them on the Mars surface as clusters of cache tubes. The second step in the plan—the retrieval of those samples—is not without its challenges.
“Curiosity, which was launched in 2011, only traveled 5 kilometers during its first 18 months on Mars,” Gu said. “It drives slowly due to its limited onboard computing resources and communication with Earth. The availability of human intelligence and supercomputers on Earth could be leveraged to perform a significant amount of ‘pre-decision computing’ in support of rover onboard autonomy.”
The WVU team will partner with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mobility and Robotic Systems Section to perform the research. Rover experiments will be initially performed at WVU at nearby Tygart Lake to validate and refine the developed algorithms and hardware/software implementations. System integration efforts will then be performed, leading to increasingly sophisticated rover autonomy demonstrations.
Toward the latter part of the project, the developed autonomy software will be adapted and uploaded to the JPL Athena rover and tested on the JPL MarsYard.
“These tests will serve three main purposes,” Gu said. “First, they will demonstrate the applicability of the developed algorithms on different rover platforms. Second, they will allow JPL scientists, researchers and rover operators to observe the rover behavior, provide feedback and steer the project technical direction. Finally, some experiments can be tailored to simulate specific mission scenarios envisioned by the JPL Mars Formulation Office to help refine mission design details.”
Once the key capabilities are developed, the researchers will perform multiple testing campaigns in the red rock deserts of southern Utah, a large and high-fidelity Mars-analog environment.
“Mars rover missions are among the highest profile NASA missions, and have generated enormous scientific, engineering and educational impacts. However, academic and industry researchers working at West Virginia University have never played a role in the past and current NASA Mars rover programs,” said Jaridi, who also directs NASA’s West Virginia Space Grant Consortium and the West Virginia Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research . “The prestigious NASA Centennial Challenge provided WVU with a national stage to demonstrate our robotics capacity, and this newfound credibility has opened a window of opportunity for interaction with top decision makers at JPL and NASA headquarters.
“From a broader perspective, having an active rover project at WVU allows students from a variety of research disciplines to find a home to grow their talents and flourish,” Jaridi added.
Jaridi, teaming with Assistant Professor Kostas Sierros, also received a $100,000 grant to conduct research and technology development aboard the International Space Station. Working with Professor Emeritus John Kuhlman and researchers at University of Rome Tor Vergata, they will combine research in materials science and physics of liquid foams with 3-D printing to further advance robotic printing titanium dioxide foams, which have great potential for space applications ranging from efficient solar cells to batteries and radiation shielding.
The project will expose the Earth-printed foam samples at Low Earth Orbit conditions. Potential degradation mechanisms will be investigated, upon return to Earth, using a suite of characterization methods.
“This degradation data will give significant early insight into the applicability of the TiO2 foam materials for the identified potential space applications before going forward and exploring their printing characteristics under microgravity conditions,” said Jaridi.
Twenty-two universities were selected to receive NASA grants for research and technology development projects in areas critical to the agency’s mission, with nine earning the opportunity to test their research aboard the International Space Station.