Researchers Test Steep-Terrain Rover

February 5, 2009
Axel rover prototype. Image credit: NASA/JPL

(PhysOrg.com) -- Engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and students at the California Institute of Technology have designed and tested a versatile, low-mass robot that can rappel off cliffs, travel nimbly over steep and rocky terrain, and explore deep craters.

This prototype rover, called Axel, might help future robotic spacecraft better explore and investigate foreign worlds such as Mars. On Earth, Axel might assist in search-and-rescue operations.

"Axel extends our ability to explore terrains that we haven't been able to explore in the past, such as deep craters with vertically-sloped promontories," said Axel's principal investigator, Issa A.D. Nesnas, of JPL's robotics and mobility section. "Also, because Axel is relatively low-mass, a mission may carry a number of Axel rovers. That would give us the opportunity to be more aggressive with the terrain we would explore, while keeping the overall risk manageable."

The simple and elegant design of Axel, which can operate both upside down and right side up, uses only three motors: one to control each of its two wheels and a third to control a lever. The lever contains a scoop to gather lunar or planetary material for scientists to study, and it also adjusts the robot's two stereo cameras, which can tilt 360 degrees.

Axel's cylindrical body has computing and wireless communications capabilities and an inertial sensor to operate autonomously. It also sports a tether that Axel can unreel to descend from a larger lander, rover or anchor point. The rover can use different wheel types, from large foldable wheels to inflatable ones, which help the rover tolerate a hard landing and handle rocky terrain.

Nesnas co-leads the project with Joel Burdick, a mechanical and bioengineering professor at Caltech, who supervises a handful of Caltech graduate and undergraduate students working on the rover system. Last fall, the JPL-Caltech team demonstrated Axel at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, which showcased NASA for the agency's 50th anniversary.

"Collaboration with Caltech has been key to the success of this project," Nesnas said. "The students contributed significantly to the design of the tethered Axel. Their creative work enabled us to analyze, design and build new wheels, sampling tools and software. The students also played a key role in field-testing this robot. Without them, we would not have been able to accomplish such goals, given our limited resources."

JPL began developing Axel in 1999, in partnership with Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., and Arkansas Tech University, Russellville, Ark. The Axel project was funded through NASA's Exploration System Mission Directorate.

More information on Axel is at:
www-robotics.jpl.nasa.gov/systems/system.cfm?System=16 and at robotics.caltech.edu/~pablo/axel/home.html .

Provided by NASA

Explore further: Citizen science to study your dog, because your dog studies you

Related Stories

Collaboratively exploring virtual worlds

June 30, 2015

Today's students are accustomed to highly stimulating and interactive content, whether in the form of video games or mobile apps. As a result, they respond to a higher level of interactivity and engagement with educational ...

Martian glass: Window into possible past life?

June 8, 2015

Researchers from Brown University have used satellite data to detect deposits of glass within impact craters on Mars. Though formed in the searing heat of a violent impact, the glasses just might provide a delicate window ...

Building a smarter rover

June 4, 2015

The next mission to Mars could carry a smarter rover that is able to make better decisions absent instructions from Earth. Engineers are looking to automate some of the simple decision-making steps undertaken by rovers and ...

Recommended for you

Distant planet's interior chemistry may differ from our own

September 1, 2015

As astronomers continue finding new rocky planets around distant stars, high-pressure physicists are considering what the interiors of those planets might be like and how their chemistry could differ from that found on Earth. ...

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

Interstellar seeds could create oases of life

August 27, 2015

We only have one example of a planet with life: Earth. But within the next generation, it should become possible to detect signs of life on planets orbiting distant stars. If we find alien life, new questions will arise. ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

DGBEACH
not rated yet Feb 06, 2009
Am I the only one who thinks that projects like these will be on the chopping block? I just don't see this happening quite frankly!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.