1. July 2022
Helmholtz Future Project ARCHES completed

Robotics team prac­tis­es lu­nar ex­plo­ration on Mount Et­na

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Space
LRU1 robot and RODIN lander
LRU1 robot and RODIN lan­der
Image 1/6, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

LRU1 robot and RODIN lander

LRU1 (Lightweight Rover Unit 1, right) eval­u­ates sur­face sam­ples us­ing its cam­eras. It is the 'sci­en­tist' in the team. The RODIN lan­der car­ries var­i­ous con­tain­ers ready for the robots. Three sce­nar­ios with robots were demon­strat­ed on the Mount Et­na vol­cano (Sici­ly, Italy). The la­va land­scape re­sem­bles the sur­face of the Moon.
LRU2 robot
LRU2 robot
Image 2/6, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

LRU2 robot

LRU2 (Lightweight Rover Unit 2) has a grip­per arm and sev­er­al tools in its 'lug­gage'. For ex­am­ple, it can choose to use a shov­el or a grip­per hand to pick up soil or rock sam­ples. LRU2 weighs ap­prox­i­mate­ly 30 kilo­grams and trav­els at a speed of four kilo­me­tres per hour. It is con­sid­ered to be an 'as­sis­tant' in the team.
LRU2 robot taking a rock sample
LRU2 robot tak­ing a rock sam­ple
Image 3/6, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

LRU2 robot taking a rock sample

LRU2 (Lightweight Rover Unit 2) picks up a rock sam­ple from the sur­face and places it in its trans­port box. The hand at the end of the robot arm was de­vel­oped by the Karl­sruhe In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy (KIT). LRU2 can use dif­fer­ent tools; it col­lects them from the lan­der and re­turns them.
Scout rover in the lava landscape on Mount Etna
Scout rover in the la­va land­scape on Mount Et­na
Image 4/6, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Scout rover in the lava landscape on Mount Etna

The Scout rover can al­so ne­go­ti­ate ob­sta­cles with its rim­less wheels. Dur­ing the ARCH­ES mis­sion, it had the task of po­si­tion­ing a WiFi re­peater so that oth­er robots had a sta­ble con­nec­tion to the 'con­trol room'.
Base Camp on the Mount Etna volcano
Base Camp on the Mount Et­na vol­cano
Image 5/6, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Base Camp on the Mount Etna volcano

The Base Camp with the test site for the 'Space' demon­stra­tion mis­sion was lo­cat­ed at an al­ti­tude of ap­prox­i­mate­ly 2600 me­tres on the south­ern flank of Mount Et­na. The land­scape is well suit­ed as a test en­vi­ron­ment. In ad­di­tion to the loose, coarse-grained sur­face ma­te­ri­al, the so­lid­i­fied la­va lay­ers al­so pose re­al­is­tic chal­lenges for ex­plo­ration mis­sions.
LRU1 robot
LRU1 robot
Image 6/6, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

LRU1 robot

LRU1 (Lightweight Rover Unit 1) per­forms tasks in the robot team to­geth­er with its robot­ic col­leagues. LRU is the pro­to­type of a mo­bile robot for ex­plo­ration in un­known, rugged and dif­fi­cult-to-ac­cess ter­rain. The cam­eras are used to map the area.
  • Mount Etna, an active volcano on Sicily, has some geographical similarities with the Moon, not least its lava landscapes and granular surface.
  • Various robotic systems worked together in inhospitable areas, where they acted as an extension of human arms and eyes.
  • Focus: Space, robotics, planetary research, technology

Robots can enter areas that are dangerous for or inaccessible to humans. They can even explore other planets – or the Moon. This has now been demonstrated on Mount Etna, a volcano in Italy. Various robots completed their tasks independently – they took rock samples, analysed them and forwarded the results to their control centre. Two other scenarios were demonstrated in addition to this mission, which was named 'Geological Mission I'. These complete the Helmholtz Future Project Autonomous Robotic Networks to Help Modern Societies (ARCHES). The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) led the project. The lava landscape on the Sicilian volcano Mount Etna resembles the surface of the Moon, so it is well suited to serve as a test environment. In addition to the loose, coarse-grained surface composition, the solidified lava layers also present realistic challenges for exploration missions.

"Teams of mobile robots have an important role to play in future space missions. Operating in heterogeneous teams, the robots complement and support each other with their different capabilities. They serve as an extension of human arms and eyes," explains Armin Wedler, Project Manager at the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics. In 'Geological Mission I', two robots moved around together autonomously. They were joined by a drone. The Lightweight Rover Unit 1 (LRU1) robot evaluated soil samples using its cameras and is considered the 'scientist' of the team. LRU2 took on the role of 'assistant', collecting surface samples and analysing them using Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS). This technique directs a powerful, pulsed laser beam onto the sample. The material partially vaporises, allowing LIBS to detect different elements in the resulting plasma. LIBS was developed by the DLR Institute of Optical Sensor Systems. LRU2 also transports storage containers, has space for tools and ensures that LRU1 always has WiFi. The ARDEA drone is considered the 'scout' for the team and mapped the area. Due to the strong winds that were present on Etna at times, the capabilities of ARDEA and LIBS could not be used on all experiment iterations.

The three scenarios are based on different overall conditions

'Geological Mission I' was based on a concept in which scientists monitor the tasks of the robots from Earth. 'Geological Mission II', which also took place on Mount Etna, is different, as in this case the robots would be controlled from a station in orbit. In addition to LRU1 and LRU2, the Interact rover collected rock samples and brought them to a lander. The Interact Rover has a camera arm and a gripper arm that also provide haptic feedback. This means that the remote scientists can obtain a tactile 'feel' for the rock samples. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has developed a robotic arm with a hand as a haptic human-machine interface. The fourth robot – the Scout rover – is equipped with a WiFi repeater and positions itself so that Interact has a continuous connection to the control room. In 'Geological Mission II' the robots do not work autonomously but are guided by an astronaut.

During the demonstration mission, German astronaut Thomas Reiter carried out this task from a special control room in Catania, about 23 kilometres away. 'Geological Mission II' also marks the conclusion of the European Space Agency (ESA) 'Analog-1' campaign. In 2019, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano controlled the Interact rover from the International Space Station (ISS) in a simulated lunar environment in the Netherlands as part of the 'Analog-1' campaign. "We have gained a lot of experience that will help us in the development of future missions. In addition to ongoing projects, we are very much looking forward to further collaboration in robotics, which will build on the findings from ARCHES," says Thomas Krüger from ESA's Human Robot Interaction Lab.

Antenna for the far side of the Moon

The third scenario, the 'LOFAR Experiment', involved simulating the installation and maintenance of a low-frequency radio antenna array. The LRU rover and the ARDEA drone demonstrated the installation of an antenna system on the far side of the Moon. A similar antenna could be directed from the lunar surface into deep space.

Helmholtz Future Project ARCHES

Heterogeneous, autonomous, networked robotic systems have been in development since 2018 as part of the Helmholtz Future Project Autonomous Robotic Networks to Help Modern Societies (ARCHES). This involves a number of different robots and fields of application. In addition to exploring the Solar System, it also opens the way for environmental monitoring of the oceans and the provision of assistance during crises on Earth.

The 'Space' demonstration mission, which eventually took place on Mount Etna, had to be postponed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 'Deep Sea' demonstration mission, also part of ARCHES, was conducted at the end of 2020.

The 'Space' demonstration mission was carried out by DLR in Catania together with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the European Space Agency (ESA). The other ARCHES project partners are the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research) and GEOMAR (Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel). The demonstration mission Robotic Exploration Under Extreme Conditions (ROBEX) took place on Mount Etna five years ago. ARCHES has built upon the experience gained through ROBEX.

In addition to the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, the DLR institutes of System Dynamics and Control, Communications and Navigation and Optical Sensor Systems, and the Space Operations and Astronaut Training Facility were all involved in ARCHES.

Contact
  • Katja Lenz
    Ed­i­tor
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)

    Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Me­dia Re­la­tions
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-5401
    Linder Höhe
    51147 Cologne
    Contact
  • Lioba Suchenwirth
    Pub­lic Re­la­tions
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    In­sti­tute of Robotics and Mecha­tron­ics
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Oberpfaffenhofen-Weßling
    Contact
  • Armin Wedler
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    In­sti­tute of Robotics and Mecha­tron­ics
    Mecha­tron­ic Sys­tems
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Oberpfaffenhofen-Weßling
    Contact
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