NASA tests robots for future moon mission

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Small, foldable Moon-scouting robots have been successfully tested in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in southern California, USA.

JPL developed the Autonomous Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (A-PUFFER) to scout regions on the Moon and gain intel about locations that may be difficult for astronauts to investigate on foot, such as hard-to-reach craters and narrow caves.

The latest iteration of A-PUFFER includes several modifications to the previous design.

A shoebox-sized wheeled robot explores the rugged terrain on the surface of the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during recent tests of the Autonomous Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot project. Credit: NASA/JPL Caltech

In addition to larger wheels, each robot has an upgraded onboard computer with a wireless radio for communication and a stereo camera for sensing the environment in front of it.

In February 2020, engineers began testing the upgraded A-PUFFER robots. As each A-PUFFER is small enough to fit in a shoebox, multiple robots can be deployed to work together and collaborate on their task.

Project manager Jean-Pierre de la Croix worked on an Autonomous Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot during recent trials in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The team of three successfully trekked the sandy and rocky terrain of JPL’s Mars Yard while simultaneously mapping the environment using sensors.

Their maps were shared with a base station and merged into an integrated map of the Mars Yard.

Together, NASA said, this system demonstrates a capability that could robustly map parts of the Moon that haven’t been mapped before.

“Collaborative, multi-rover autonomy has the promise to unlock new missions that are either too risky for a single rover or simply require more than one rover to achieve,” said Jean-Pierre de la Croix, A-PUFFER project manager at JPL.

NASA said it will continue to test the autonomous-capable robots and that A-PUFFER technology could make its way to the Moon on a commercial lunar lander in the next few years.

Want to learn more about how robotics and automation are transforming aeronautics? Robotics and Automation – the UK’s largest dedicated robotics and automation exhibition – takes place on the 3rd and 4th November 2020 at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry. Register your interest now at www.roboticsandautomation.co.uk

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