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4.8.2 Teleoperation and Automation for Exploration

The Russian lunar exploration and sample return program of the early 1970s was based on the Lunokhod teleoperated robots.

LunaCorp in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute is developing a robotic probe to travel across the lunar surface, including a prototype which was tested in a 200 km journey across the Atacama Desert in Chile in the summer of 1997. Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute is one of the leading university-based robotics institutions in the world, and has performed a few studies into robotics for lunar materials utilization.

Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) has recently developed the Robotic All Terrain Lunar Exploration Rover (RATLER), running a prototype across rough terrain. The RATLER is a four wheel vehicle about 1.2 meters long and wide, with four 50 cm diameter wheels. Its design allows all four wheels to maintain ground contact even when crossing very rough terrain, which expands its capabilities. The RATLER is equipped with a variety of sensors to determine the position of its various parts, its orientation with respect to horizontal, its position, and its environment. Unfortunately, no WWW page was known to exist on the RATLER as of June 1997.

SNL is the foremost U.S. government research and development site for robotics, including:

  • the SNL Space Systems Directorate, which has been designing, producing and operating satellite systems and subsystems in Earth orbit for national security missions since the early 1960s
  • the SNL Robotic Vehicle Range (RVR) which has been used to support technology base development in applications ranging from Defense Dept. battlefield and security missions, to multi-agency nuclear power plant emergency response team exercises, and the development of a prototype robotic rover for planetary exploration

Without a doubt, there exist many talented and experienced people at Sandia National Laboratories, and much leading edge technology which was performed at taxpayer expense and is thus nonproprietary, all of which could be applied to space industrialization in this post-Cold War period.

As written by SNL's P. Klarer, Senior Technical Associate, Advanced Vehicle Development Dept, Robotic Vehicle Range (with the help of Dr. James W. Purvis of the Space Robotics Programs office):

"Recent activities at the SNL-RVR include the Robotic All Terrain Lunar Exploration Rover (RATLER) prototype development program, exploratory studies on a Near Term Lunar Return Mission scenario for small robotic rovers based on existing space hardware technology, and demonstrations of the utility of existing rover technologies for performing remote field geology tasks similar to those envisioned on a robotic lunar rover mission. Specific technologies demonstrated include low data rate teleoperation, multi-vehicle control, remote site and sample inspection, and standard bandwidth stereo vision. These activities serve to support the use of robotic rovers for an early return to the lunar surface by demonstrating capabilities that are attainable with off-the-shelf technology and existing control techniques.

"Due to the breadth of technical activities at SNL, there are many supporting technology areas for space robotics applications development. These range from core competency areas in advanced aerodynamics, computing, and microsensor technologies, to the actual design, production and space-qualification of flight components using existing in-house capabilities...

"Existing launch capacity in the form of either the [Space Shuttle] or from the military stable of vehicles, coupled to existing upper stage hardware, navigation and guidance techniques, and passive deceleration and landing hardware, could realistically place several small robotic rover vehicles on the lunar surface with a single launch. Robotic rovers are a proven technology for lunar exploration, so long as a high degree of autonomy is not required." (paper reference)

SNL has produced a RATLER I and a RATLER II, and has performed robotic geological assessments, showing the advantages of having more than one robot in order to show multiple perspectives of sites of interest.

One of the studies at Sandia National Laboratories was into using a converted military ICBM (InterContinental Ballistic Missile) MIRV (Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicle) carrier bus, but instead of having multiple nuclear warheads, to put six to ten lunar rovers onto the bus and send it to lunar orbit. Once in lunar orbit, the MIRV platform would launch the rovers down to specific sites on the lunar surface in a manner very similar to that used for targetting military missiles on the ground in another continent. Of course, this is a very mature technology using off the shelf components (or off-the-missile components).

In this study, the MIRV bus maneuvers to an orbit just 5 to 10 kilometers above the lunar surface (15,000 to 30,000 feet), and then ejects the rovers backwards. A 5 kilogram storable fuel propellant retro engine fires to slow the rover to an almost complete stop not far above the lunar surface. The rover cannisters then free fall to the lunar surface. They are fitted with air bags (like those in automobiles and for Mars Pathfinder's landing) which cushions their fall, at a speed which even a human could withstand. The air bags are inflated not upon impact (as in a car) but just prior to impact, using, of course, a military Reentry Vehicle (RV) radar proximity fuse.

Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute has been testing some autonomous navigation programs on the RATLER.

We could also utilize the 1970s technology used to land the Russian Lunokhod robots on the Moon for the successful Russian lunar sample return missions, and the two U.S. Viking landers on Mars as well. For the past 20 years, the Russians have been developing a follow-on robot called the Marsokhod, which draws its heritage from the Lunokhod robots.

Carnegie-Mellon University's Autonomous Planetary Exploration Program (APEX) has also been building the Daedalus robot, a highly automated walking robot with six legs, which belongs to a class of robots called "frame walkers". Daedalus will be quite large, at about 2 meters tall and 200 kg. Daedalus is designed to be a combination lander/rover. (paper reference)

There is much existing literature on Mars rovers which could be mechanically applied to the Moon and applied programming-wise to asteroids since Mars is further away than some attractive asteroids and requires longer communications times, thus necessitating a high degree of automation relative to teleoperation. For example, there is the "Beamwalker" developed by Martin Marietta Corp. for a potential NASA mission called the Mars Sample Return Mission. (paper reference)

Robots for landing on and exploring an asteroid would be of a mechanically different design due to the microgravity environment of an asteroid, as discussed at length in the asteroids chapter. > Manufacturing, Industry > Robotics > Surface Exploration

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