The Jacobs Robotics group has qualified as one of 8 teams for the Lunar Robotics Challenge (LRC) of the European Space Agency (ESA). The goal of the ESA Lunar Robotics Challenge is to evaluate systems that are capable of entering a crater in a moon-like environment, to take samples at the bottom of the crater, and to return with the samples out of the crater. This event is scheduled for October 2008, i.e., the team faces a pretty tight schedule from the start of the project in May 2008.
The team consists of undergraduate and graduate students from the Jacobs Robotics Group supervised by Prof. Andreas Birk. The team has additional faculty support by Prof. Klaus Slenzka, OHB-Systems AG and professor for Space Biology at Jacobs University, and Prof. Joachim Vogt, professor of space physics at Jacobs University. The Jacobs Robotics Group is very experienced with the development of mobile intelligent robots for unstructured environments. In general, the group works toward autonomous intelligent systems that are fieldable. Therefore, an integrated approach is taken, i.e., the systems are developed at Jacobs University from the mechatronics level to the high-level software.
Goals of the team
The Jacobs Robotics Group has previously mainly developed systems within the context of Safety, Security, and Rescue Robotics. This domain has some interesting overlap with space robotics with respect to the open research problems. In both fields, robots have to be physically capable to handle rough environemts and complex terrain. Physical capabilities are necessary but far from sufficient. Even with “simple” teleoperation, i.e., a human steers the robot by some wireless connection, it is difficult to control the robot when the operator must rely on the robot-centric view from e.g. cameras on the robot. Note that the situation is quite different from steering an RC-car where you can exploit an operator-centric view, i.e., you directly watch the car move and you can well perceive the situation of the car in its environment. A good example of the problem is stairclimbing with a robot. In the operator-centric view like with the RC-car, you can watch from the side of the stair the effects of your steering commands on the robots. If you have a good robot that is physically well designed to climb stairs, you can see that this is quite easy for a trained operator. But the situation is quite different if you do not have a direct view on your robot. This can for example be seen at robot evaluation events or competitions where operators have to rely on onboard sensors like video cameras. The challenge for the operator is part of a larger issue known as the “situation awareness” problem, i.e., to find good ways to allow the operator to know about the state of the robot and of the enviroment it is in. So even with teleoperation, good sensors and clever ways to process their data is of importance for mobile robots operating in challenging environments like the moon’s surface.
Roughly speaking, we think it is not sufficient to concentrate on the hardware side of the robot for the ESA Lunar Robotics Challenge. Of course, a good platform with strong locomotion capabilties is necessary in accordance with the ancient Roman slogan “mens sana in corpore sano”. But the robot’s “mind” is in addition to its “body” a crucial element for success for this challenge. First of all, it is necessary to process sensor data and to generate environment models to get an optimal situation awareness for the human operator. Second, we want to use this information on the robot itself for autonomous functions that allow the operator to concentrate on high level aspects of the mission. Finally, two robots are used to exploit the benefits of intelligent cooperation.
In summary, the team intends to make following main contributions within its developments for the ESA Lunar Robotics Challenge:
- development of a mobile robot with shape shifting tracks or “flippers” that allow to adapt the footprint of the robot and to shift the center of gravity
- operator assistance with intelligent autonomous functions onboard of the robot(s) to assure optimal situation awareness
- usage of a small team of two robots cooperating with each other to increase redundancy and to achieve more robust environment sensing as well as faster mission completion
The team maintains a blog of its activities: http://jacobs-lunar-robotics.blogspot.com/
 F. A. W. Belo, A. Birk, C. Brunskill, F. Kirchner, V. Lappas, C. D. Remy, S. Roccella, C. Rossi, A. Tikanmäki, and G. Visentin, “The ESA Lunar Robotics Challenge: Simulating Operations at the Lunar South Pole,” Journal of Field Robotics, vol. 29, pp. 601-626, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1002/rob.20429 [Preprint]
 N. Vaskevicius, A. Birk, K. Pathak, S. Schwertfeger, and R. Rathnam, “Efficient Representation in 3D Environment Modeling for Planetary Robotic Exploration,” Advanced Robotics, vol. 24, pp. 1169-1197, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1163/016918610X501291 [Preprint]
 A. Birk, N. Vaskevicius, K. Pathak, S. Schwertfeger, J. Poppinga, and H. Bülow, “3-D Perception and Modeling,” IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine (RAM), special issue on Space Robotics, R. Wagner, R. Volpe, G. Visentin (Eds), vol. 6, pp. 53-60, December 2009. https://doi.org/10.1109/MRA.2009.934822 [Preprint]