Astrobotic, Carnegie Mellon Selected for NASA Award for Cooperative Rovers

Astrobotic is one of 14 companies selected for NASA’s Tipping Point solicitation. This illustration depicts CubeRover, an ultra-light, modular and scalable commercial rover.(Credit: Astrobotic/Carnegie Mellon University)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected Astrobotic Technology and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) for funding to continue development of technologies to enable groups of rovers to cooperatively explore the surface of other worlds.

The funding comes in the form of a Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) award worth up to $750,000 over two years. The phase II funding will allow Astrobotic and CMU to continue work begun under an earlier STTR award.

The partners believe cooperative rovers can explore other worlds “with higher efficiency and lower mission risk, perform novel and precise resource and science surveys, and gather and share resources and information with other assets to bring planetary exploration.”

However, the lack of global positioning systems orbiting the moon, Mars and other destinations will make it difficult for the rovers to determine where they are on those worlds and in proximity to each other, the proposal summary stated.

NASA funding will Astrobotic and CMU to:

  • mature of ranging radio subsystem;
  • develop visual relative pose estimation and associated error models for these estimations;
  • develop and fabricate of a sensor package that includes camera, ranging system, IMU, and processing board;
  • integrate the ranging system and visual relative pose estimation together in the sensor package;
  • development of software that fuses the sensor information;, and,
  • demonstrate the sensor systems co-localization functionality in a relevant mission context.

The technology has applications for NASA’s planetary program and for the private sector on Earth.

“NASA’s New Horizons mission to explore Titan with a paired drone and rover, as well as its Mars Helicopter mission are excellent examples of missions that could benefit from improvements in paired navigation….

“Co-localization has utility in the mining, military, and transportation industries. Exploring, mapping, and navigating underground is critical for areas too treacherous for human activity.,” the summary stated.

The proposal summary follows.

Co-Localization for Planetary Rover Teams
Subtopic: Coordination and Control of Swarms of Space Vehicles

Astrobotic Technology, Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA

Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA

Principal Investigator: Dr. Andrew Horchler

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

This project is developing, testing, and integrating hardware systems and software techniques to enable the co-localization of teams of rovers, specifically targeting small-scale, low size, weight, and power rovers. Utilizing inertial measurement units (IMU), ultra-wideband (UWB) ranging radio, and a model-based approach to relative visual range, bearing, and pose estimation, each rover in a team of small rovers will demonstrate co-localization.

The project will pursue several parallel threads of research and development and culminate in the integration of several of these threads to demonstrate the developed technology:

  • Maturation of ranging radio subsystem, including developing error models of the sensor system as well as environmental and power testing of UWB chipsets for flight readiness
  • Development of visual relative pose estimation and associated error models for these estimations
  • Development and fabrication of a sensor package that includes camera, ranging system, IMU, and processing board
  • Integration of the ranging system and visual relative pose estimation together in the sensor package, develop software that fuses the sensor information, and demonstrate the sensor systems co-localization functionality in a relevant mission context.

The proposed research will develop simple and robust techniques for co-localizing multiple rovers in a planetary environment and perception/sensing technologies that incorporate considerations for relevant concepts of operations. We will demonstrate and benchmark a software framework and prototype sensor hardware for tightly coupled multi-agent co-localization in this Phase II contract.

Potential NASA Applications

NASA CLPS payloads will become increasingly ambitious and complex in future missions, and as such, will depend more on co-localization technology. Such technology could also enable missions in undiscovered areas of our solar system such as on the surface of Titan or Mars. NASA’s New Horizons mission to explore Titan with a paired drone and rover, as well as its Mars Helicopter mission are excellent examples of missions that could benefit from improvements in paired navigation.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Co-localization has utility in the mining, military, and transportation industries. Exploring, mapping, and navigating underground is critical for areas too treacherous for human activity. Teams of co-localizing mining robots could aid in mapping dangerous areas. The capability to reliably co-localize will become an increasingly critical feature for autonomous aircraft as well.