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'Seeker' navigation system could take Mars rovers further

Future Mars rovers could travel further than ever before without human intervention thanks to an autonomous navigation system being designed in the UK.

The ‘Seeker’ project will create software enabling rovers to journey 20 times as far in a day as current technology, while looking out for scientifically interesting features on Mars’ surface.

Scientists and engineers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire are leading a team of mainly British firms to create the system, which is funded through the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) StarTiger rapid research initiative.

Current rovers are limited by the 30 minutes it takes for instructions to be sent to Mars and data sent back, said Kim Ward, project director and head of space engineering and technology at RAL Space, part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

‘The current European rover, ExoMars, is planned to do 100m a day because it goes just a few metres and then stops and waits for the next command,’ he told The Engineer. ‘It’s incredibly slow and cranky because of the long turnaround time.’

Seeker will allow future Mars rovers to navigate and travel unassisted as far as 6km in three days. It will also note unusual rocks, such as those with visible sedimentary layers, that scientists might be interested in.

A rover using the system will receive a digital elevation model (DEM) — effectively a 1m-resolution map of the environment — from an orbiting counterpart spacecraft and then work out where it is based on prominent geographical features.

It will analyse images of its surroundings in order to plan a route to its instructed destination — a process called visual odometry.

The individual software elements for these tasks have been trialled previously, but the Seeker team needs to stitch them together into a single system that uses much less processor power and sensory input.

The Seeker team includes RAL Space, SciSys, BAE Systems and Roke Manor Research from the UK, as well as MDA Space and Robotics from Canada and French firm LAAS.

Four rovers will use the Seeker technology: RoboVolc from BAE Systems; Kryten and Rimmer from RAL Space; and Indie from SciSys, which already has prototypes of all the seeker sensors and software installed.

StarTiger is an ESA programme that aims to speed up research and development by reducing bureaucracy and academic distractions to enable a team of experts to develop technology within a limited time and budget (around £800,000 per project).

Seeker is the first StarTiger project hosted at RAL Space since 2002. The last project yielded a groundbreaking terahertz camera that led to spin-out company Thruvision and the development of security scanners capable of detecting non-metallic objects, which are now used in airports worldwide.

Readers' comments (2)

  • I love the part about reducing the impact of bureaucracy. White's First Law says "The primary purpose of a bureaucrat is to prevent anything getting done; you can't be blamed for it going wrong if you never let it happen in the first place."

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  • A misconception is repeated here: the current Mars rovers are not held back by the 30 minute communication time. They already operate autonomously and have done so since they landed in 2004. This RAL project may well greatly increase autonomy and productivity on the surface (a good thing) but it would be wrong to say that the MER rovers (and soon Curiosity) are in any way "joysticked" from Earth, as is implied in this article.

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