Legged robots to aid planetary research – USC Viterbi

(Photo / Courtesy of Feifei Qian)

(Photo / Courtesy of Feifei Qian)

Every night all over the world, people look up and see the moon. On some nights it appears as a small sliver. Other nights are full and light up the dark sky. What is this satellite made of? Does it have water? Has he ever supported animal or plant life?

Robots have long helped scientists answer these and other questions about the moon and the planets that make up our solar system. However, today’s roving vehicles generally have wheels that can get stuck in planetary terrain, sometimes aborting important exploration missions.

Feifei Qian, associate professor at WiSE Gabilan at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, is leading a three-year, $3 million, NASA-funded research project to create legged robots that can glide more easily across icy surfaces, flaky sand and other hard-to-reach objects. Navigating environments, greatly enhancing scientists’ abilities to gather information from planetary objects.

The overarching goal of this endeavor is to understand how robotics technology can integrate with both planetary science and cognitive science, to improve robot-assisted exploration of planetary environments. The primary objective of this project is to create a new generation of highly mobile robots and roving vehicles that can easily move across planetary surfaces and support the exploration goals of human scientists.

This project uses “life-inspired” legged robots, which means their shape is modeled after animals’ unique abilities to move well over challenging surfaces such as fine sand. Using the latest “direct-drive” operating technology, these robots can “feel” the terrain (for example, the softness of the sand, the shapes of the rocks) from their legs. This ability allows legged robots to interact with the environment in the same way as animals, adjusting their movement as needed.

As Principal Investigator Qian says, these robots are designed in a way that allows them to “not only mimic what animals look like, but really understand what makes these animals successful on different terrains.”

The ability to “feel” the terrain using legs also allows these legged robots to easily gather information about the environment as they move and adjust exploration strategies based on this information. Combined with additional scientific instrumentation, these robots can gather a large amount of useful information as they roam around the surfaces of planets.

“For many planetary environments that we want to explore, we want to send vehicles and robots to gather information before sending humans,” Qian said. “Even for environments where it is safe to send astronauts, mobile robots can integrate scientific instruments and help take accurate measurements. on the go.”

While Mars exploration vehicles and other robots have been successfully sent into space, they usually operate on the basis of a pre-programmed agenda, which means that human scientists and engineers need to enter detailed instructions about where to go and what to do before the robots. arriving on the planet. As a result, when the robot encounters any unexpected scenarios or detects any interesting measurements, its capabilities are limited to adapt its plan. This could hinder the ability of robots or roving vehicles to navigate effectively in new environments, or even miss opportunities to make important scientific discoveries.

Qian’s research project, LASSIE, which stands for Surface Independent Science in Analog Environments, seeks to enable robots to move more effectively in different environments while collecting information about them. This information has the potential to allow researchers to understand more about what these planets look like and how they interact with perturbations. By understanding how human scientists interpret this information and adapt their exploration plans, the robotics and cognitive scientists on the LASSIE team will create intelligent robots that can begin to make exploration decisions “as a scientist.” One of the questions guiding this research is “How do we make the most efficient use of a robot, so it bears some of the burden of decision making?” said University of Pennsylvania Professor Doug Gerolmack, a research associate.

The NASA project will fund Qian and her team to test these two-legged robots at locations like Mount Hood, Oregon, and White Sands, New Mexico, which simulate the terrains of planets like Mars and the Moon. Analyzing the performance of Qian robots inspired by living things on Earth will allow researchers to make adjustments before the legged robots. Professor Fifi Kian of the University of Southern California Viterbi is the principal investigator for a $3 million project that could dramatically improve the ability of robots to aid in planetary explorations on other planets and the Moon.

One of the two-legged robots measuring the strength of the regolith during a previous field campaign in White Sands, New Mexico.  Photo/courtesy Feifei Qian

One of the two-legged robots measuring the strength of the regolith in White Sands, New Mexico. picture/
Courtesy Feifei Qian

The research group consists of Qian, and eight research associates from various research universities, including Texas A&M University, University of Pennsylvania, Oregon State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as the NASA Johnson Space Center. A significant portion of NASA’s funding supports the students working on this project.

“This is a dream team and a very rare opportunity to bring a team with all components into one project,” said Qian.

Qian joined USC Viterbi as an assistant professor in 2020. She holds a master’s degree in physics and a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology.

The technology and understanding that this project will develop will also be useful for scientific exploration on Earth [because] Our project will provide an understanding of how human scientists make sampling decisions and adapt exploration strategies in response to incoming measurements,” said Qian. With a team of robotics, Earth and planetary scientists, and cognitive scientists working together, the LASSIE team led by Professor Qian will create the next generation of robots and rovers that can That greatly expands our knowledge of the moon and other planets.

Posted on September 7, 2022

Last updated on September 7, 2022

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