December 21, 2001
The next generation of Mars rovers may not be what you'd expect. Someday, a giant "beach ball" rover may roll along the surface of the planet and make a flurry of new discoveries. Other rovers may literally hang on the edge to give scientists a good look at the planet's nooks and crannies. The new "cliff-bot" rover can do just that. Artificial intelligence software drives a team of rovers able to set up camp and work independently. Yet the robotic machines that get first digs at Mars will be bulldozing rovers capable of scooping the Martian soil. This "rover roundup" will give you a glimpse of the latest rover research at JPL.
Engineers have turned a giant beach ball into a new fuel-free robotic device that may use the wind's energy to bounce around the surface of Mars. Dubbed by engineers as the "Tumbleweed Rover" for its ability to travel vast distances, the giant beach ball's discovery happened by accident. During testing of a giant rover with inflatable wheels in the Mojave Desert, a wheel came loose and started tumbling at fast speeds across the desert. Engineers couldn't pin it down and had to hitch a ride on an all-terrain vehicle to corral the lone ranger. The tumbleweed is now equipped with water-seeking science instruments suspended by tension cords that may find water on Mars.
Hanging on Mars
Recent Mars images show evidence of water outflows near cliff edges. "Following the water" and exploring these rugged, science-rich areas is a challenge beyond current rovers that traverse relatively flat surfaces. A new team of rovers may have to go over the edge of cliffs to get a better look, giving scientists a peek down a road they've never gone before. The "cliff-bot" is a prototype rover that is part of a team of three highly interactive rovers. As two of these rovers anchor themselves to the edge of a steep cliff, a third tethered and steerable "cliff-bot" gently descends and ascends slopes of more than 60 degrees.
Smart Robotic Work Crews
It is impossible to foresee every rock and boulder on Mars. Engineers are working on a new team of rovers that function independently, with little or no direction from the ground. These rovers can traverse natural terrain and work many thousands of miles from Earth, without help from humans. Engineers are getting closer to a new design allowing rovers to share a brain and work in sync. Teams of rovers cooperate with each other and work together towards a common goal. They are able to move around natural terrain while carrying large objects and maintaining an awareness of the other's location, as well as the many obstacles in their path. This "self-awareness" and collective behavior borders on the use of true artificial intelligence.
Mining the Earth
Recent news about possible water on Mars has the robotics community working overtime. Development of teams of rovers that communicate with each other to excavate a site piece-by-piece and look for signs of life or to help build a Mars outpost are underway. These mini bulldozer rovers have the same capabilities as their heavy-duty counterparts, and are equipped with a scoop and dump truck. One of these rovers may one day carve through the red planet's terrain, mining for minerals.