Revolutionary navigation system for future Mars rovers

December 8, 2011, Science and Technology Facilities Council
BAe Robotic rover being tested on the simulated martian landscape

( -- An autonomous navigation system that will enable a future planetary rover vehicle to be in complete control of its own actions as it explores the surface of Mars is being designed by top-calibre scientists and engineers at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The team from the UK, France and Canada are joining forces to design ‘Seeker’ as part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) StarTiger initiative, which tackles specific space-related challenges through targeted projects with fixed timeframes.  Details of Seeker’s development were unveiled today on the day STFC’s RAL Space is holding its 7th Appleton Space conference.

The high level conference organised by RAL (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) Space, brings together leading figures from the global space industry to share the very latest developments in current and future space exploration; this year’s programme features a video address from the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science. The StarTiger-Seeker project, led by RAL Space, is a seven month project that will see the team work intensively day and night to design a navigation system that, unlike previous systems, will enable a rover to navigate around Mars totally independently, covering at least 1km a day. The Seeker will allow a rover to react better to its surroundings and undertake experiments in more locations, enabling our understanding of the Red Planet to take a major leap forward.

Designed for use on future missions to Mars, Seeker will perform a range of key actions completely unaided by Mission Control or by GPS-type technology. These include: identifying the precise location of the rover on Mars, identifying promising scientific opportunities; long-range pinpointing of particular sites to visit; detecting and avoiding hazards; and navigating back to previously visited sites. It is expected that the Seeker technology will also have potential applications here on Earth, particularly in inhospitable environments.

Robotic rover "indie" being tested on the simulated martian landscape

The Seeker team includes experts from RAL Space, SciSys, BAe Systems, Roke Manor Research (all from the UK), LAAS (France) and MDA Space & Robotics (Canada). It will apply leading-edge skills in autonomy and intelligence, electronic sensing, image processing and other disciplines to tackle the huge challenges presented by the project.

Kim Ward of RAL Space, the Project Director, says: “The keys to Seeker’s success will be imagination, application and team work. With radio signals to conventional rovers taking at least 30 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars, Seeker’s ability to work autonomously in hostile terrain will be crucial to extending our understanding of our planetary neighbour.”

David Willetts said: "Space captures the imagination of so many people, and it’s excellent to see UK experts playing such a significant role in the groundbreaking StarTiger initiative. The Seeker project has the potential to transform our exploration of Mars and make an important contribution to the international body of knowledge on the universe around us."

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) was instrumental in bringing the ESA StarTiger project to the UK, through working with ESA Harwell (ESA’s only UK base) and securing funding for ESA Harwell’s establishment as a focus for space exploration.

Among those attending today’s Appleton Space Conference are Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA, and Robert Cabana, Director of the Kennedy Space Centre in the USA.

Also at the conference, the President of UrtheCast, Scott Larson, gave more details about RAL Space’s plans to design and build two cameras that will provide the first-ever live video feeds from space. The cameras will be installed on the International Station now in orbit around Earth.  

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2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 08, 2011
Them dang scientists and engineers just wasting our money to justify their jobs.. Why don't they just put a Tom-Tom on the dang thing?!?
4.5 / 5 (2) Dec 08, 2011
To Eberswalde? I'd prefer it to go where those satellite images of "running fluid" on Mars were found earlier this year.

Curiosity team better hope Curiosity stays in service for a long time because it looks like they'll soon be out of the job.
3 / 5 (4) Dec 08, 2011
Sleep. . . .they're not sending Curiosity where the water is unless a terrain full of wet clay is what the rover runs into by accident. It's all geology, not even microbes on this trip, just like with Spirit and Opportunity. JPL has thoroughly scoped Gale Crater and found it safe and that's why they chose THAT location to land the rover. NASA doesn't generally take chances with their equipment. . .er, I mean OUR equipment.
An autonomous navigation system, if really advanced, would be an asset if the AI is well advanced also.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 08, 2011
I actually meant to say Opportunity better stay in service* because she's starting to get rusty and those people might not have a job come the next rover. The guy who drives opportunity has a twitter, I wonder how he will take this news. Curiosity, if it lands, I feel will last a very long time.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2011
It's got a SICK Lidar on on it. That thing better be nuclear powered.
not rated yet Dec 09, 2011
These rovers get stuck from time to time. They get stuck even when traversing what looks like entirely flat, stable terrain (which turns out not to be quite so).

Several times scale replicas of the scenarios have been built on Earth and countless simulations of complex, completely unintuitive maneuvers were tried over and over again (widely varied scenarios of wheels pointing in different directions, turning in different directions, etc). These were done because many of the maneuvers sent would simply dig the rover further and further into the mars (fun to use that as a non-propper noun!).

Eventually, after many hundreds of hours of earth-based to-scale simulations, we've been fortunate in that we've managed to have the rovers dig themselves out.

Somehow I think autonomous drive in locations without a service truck handy will never be a good idea, unless the communication time-lag is truly insurmountable.

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