Before space technologies are actually deployed in orbit or on other planets, they must be tested on Earth. As part of the European Union’s Strategic Research Cluster (SRC) on Space Robotics Technologies, a consortium of European partners has developed core technologies for a new generation of space robots. Coordinated by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), the software developed in the SRC was put to the test outside the laboratory, in a four-week field test campaign on the northern edge of the Sahara. The four-week field test campaign concluded December 15 in the Moroccan desert, and was organised by the FACILITATORS sub-project, led by GMV from Spain.
The objective of the Strategic Research Cluster (SRC) on Space Robotics Technologies is to advance European research and development in the field of space robotics. With the participation of the European Space Agency (ESA), the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the national space agencies of France, Spain, Italy and Great Britain, the Program Support Activity (PSA) PERASPERA outlines the research roadmap of the Strategic Research Cluster and monitors its implementation in currently six subprojects. An important part of the cluster are extensive tests and evaluations of the technologies developed therein.
The DFKI Robotics Innovation Center (RIC) coordinated the tests from 15 November to 15 December 2018 with other European partners to validate space software developed in the subprojects ERGO and INFUSE for the first time outside the laboratory under realistic conditions.
On trial: Innovative software frameworks for autonomy and data fusion
In the SRC subproject ERGO, a team of European partners developed a software framework that enables the robust and autonomous operation of robots in the context of space missions. This was implemented using the software development environment for space robots developed in the subproject ESROCOS, in which DFKI RIC was also involved. The consortium of the INFUSE project, which also includes the DFKI, implemented a comprehensive framework for the fusion of heterogeneous sensor data to achieve the most accurate motion planning and navigation of space robots. DFKI’s hybrid walking and driving rover SherpaTT serves as a robotic platform to test the innovative software technologies in the field. SherpaTT is a desert veteran – back in 2016, it already successfully participated in a simulated space mission in the semi-desert of Utah, USA.
The mission: DFKI robot autonomously traverses the desert
The field test campaign was inspired by planetary exploration scenarios such as the NASA Mars Sample Return Mission. SherpaTT used the newly developed software to conduct an autonomous long-distance mission. With the goal to take a soil sample at a remote destination, the rover travelled a kilometer-long route in the Moroccan desert landscape characterised by wide plains, but also steep slopes and gorges. In doing so, he planned his own reaction to unforeseen situations, e.g. adapting to changing ground conditions and overcoming obstacles.
The first phase of the test campaign served as preparation: integration and repair work was carried out in a workshop near the base-camp hotel. First tests were done on the nearby natural sand dunes. The research team then went to the Sahara for the final tests that encompassed a complete long-distance mission with SherpaTT. A temporary tent camp served as the base and control station during the mission. On 4 December 2018, the press and general public were invited to visit the site and get a personal impression of the field tests.
The Strategic Research Cluster (SRC) on Space Robotics Technologies has been funded since 2014 from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 R&D funding program.