How Two-Wheeled Robots Will Supersede Mars Rovers And Enable Longer Exploration Missions

New Delhi: Scientists at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Russia have proposed a concept for a modular Mars exploration rover which leverages the power of co-operative robotics.

In a paper published in the journal Astronautical Act, the scientists have described a new system consisting of four two-wheeled robots that can operate independently or combine various constellations. The modular robotic swarm can supersede existing Mars rovers and expand the possibilities for Mars exploration, according to the study.

How Is The New System Of Robots Beneficial?

The robotic swarm approach will enable longer exploration missions which gather more information about the planet’s history, and possible traces of surface water or prior life.

The paper focuses on how cooperative modular robotic solutions for Mars exploration can improve factors such as mission lifetime and exploration speed, and reduce the cost of the mission. According to the study, increased mobility has been addressed by launching Ingenuity, the first flying robot to Mars. It has brought new opportunities to explore previously inaccessible areas.

NASA’s Pathfinder, the first successful Mars rover, landed on the red planet in 1997. Since then, researchers have used the same basic design for rovers: a six-wheeled autonomous exploratory vehicle carrying a set of scientific instruments on board.

Now, scientists suggest that a Mars mission could achieve more at the same timespan if it consists of several variously equipped robots simultaneously carrying out separate tasks at different locations and occasionally coming together for more challenging tasks.

A Swarm Concept For Mars Exploration Rovers

For the last 20 years, exploration speed and mission lifetime have changed insignificantly, while the total mission cost has constantly grown, according to the researchers.

These parameters, defined as Figures of Merit (FoM), can be increased using the concept of two-wheeled robots swarm.

How Will The Robotic Swarm Design Enhance Mission Parameters?

Compared to the last successfully launched mission, the robotic swarm design increases mission lifetime by 83 percent, increases exploration speed by 130 percent, and decreases total mission cost by 31 percent, according to the study.

In a statement issued by Skoltech, Alexander Petrovsky, the first author of the study, said that this is basically an “optimization problem”. The approach aims to maximize exploration time and distance covered without driving the cost of the mission through the roof.

He said the researchers found that using one six-wheeled rover can be suboptimal. Four two-wheeled machines are the best way to go, according to their calculations.

Petrovsky explained that each robot would carry unique research tools with only the critical payload present in all four modules.

Even if three of the robots fail, the remaining one can still do a fair amount of work and transmit its findings to Earth, maximizing the ultimate results of the mission by the time it terminates.

Operations such as grabbing things on the planet require maximum stability. While performing these activities, a pair of rovers with two wheels could assemble into a four-wheeler to be on the safe side and avoid falling over, according to the study.

Petrovsky said that reduced stability is the main drawback. He said, however, that the two-wheeled robot technology has come a long way toward making other parameters more stable than they used to be.

Can The Robots Benefit Other Missions?

Petrovsky further said that artificial intelligence technologies supervising the swarm of mobile robots will open the doors to a new technological level of planetary exploration. He believes that swarm robot technology intended for Mars exploration could also benefit lunar missions and even projects on Earth.

For instance, similar two-wheeled robots could be deployed to monitor the growth of agricultural plants and detect pests or diseases infesting the fields.

Petrovsky said that in July 2021, the researchers conducted some field tests with small two-wheeled robots on crops in Krasnodar, Russia. He added that apart from this, the modular approach could also benefit robotics developed for search and rescue operations.

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