Human communication

NASA trains human-like robots to explore caves on Mars

When looking for signs of life on other planets, scientists say caves are a crucial place to look. But how can a team on Earth effectively explore complex, dark and unfamiliar landscapes on another world?

NASA and Boston Dynamics have found an answer: fully autonomous robots.

Caves are one of the places most likely to find signs of current and past life on other planets, as they are able to protect life from cosmic rays and extreme temperature fluctuations around our solar system. A NASA project called BRAILLE is currently working to explore Mars-like caves that already exist on Earth to perfect key technologies for future missions.

According to the researchers, the project enabled the very first fully autonomous robotic exploration of this type of caves, several hundred meters long and limiting communication with the surface. As the robots explore, without any prior information about the environment, a team of researchers outside the cave simultaneously performs actions that scientists on Earth would perform on an actual Martian mission.

Boston Dynamics’ SPOT robot explores a cave similar to Mars.


The research, which project manager Ali Agha says could “fundamentally change the way we think about future missions” is now in its third year of four in its quest to travel to the moon, the red planet and beyond. .

But researchers are interested in exploring caves for another reason beyond looking for signs of life: Caves provide obvious natural shelters for people. future astronauts exploring Mars or the moon.

“Potential future human exploration missions can benefit robots in a number of ways,” Agha told CBS News. “In particular, robots can be sent on precursor missions to provide more information about the destination before humans land on those destinations. ‘Safer and more efficient missions.”

So how is designing a Martian robot different from designing an Earth robot? They are similar in many ways, Agha said, especially when it comes to the brain of the AI ​​robot, called NeBula, and its ability to process information and make decisions when not in contact with people. scientists on Earth.

In search of life: NASA’s JPL explores Martian-style caves by
Boston Dynamics on Youtube

But when it comes to the robot body, this is where things get tricky. Scientists must consider temperature management, protection of robots from radiation, as well as the severe power and energy constraints that come with hiking in a far-off world – all aspects that did not exist. not yet taken into account on Earth.

Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot has proven to be an extremely viable body for NeBula.

“SPOT is one of the most capable robots we have and it is amazing how successfully it reacts to high level decisions and commands coming from the robot brain and how it can maintain stability over rough terrain and extremes, ”Agha said. “In addition to our capable traditional wheeled rovers, the ability to ‘walk’ is a huge plus when it comes to rough terrain with no roads and no flat surfaces.”

There are three main factors for the success of the robot:

  • He must be able to carry enough payload so that his eyes, ears, and brain can traverse difficult Martian or lunar terrain.
  • It must carry a significant amount of scientific instruments.
  • He must prove that he can maintain a “reasonable” level of stability, speed and endurance in another world.

“We have these multiple mobile robots that can carry different instruments, as opposed to a big robot that will have a hard time crossing its terrain,” said Benjamin Morrell, deputy project manager, referring to the former Martian rovers.

Ali Agha, Project Manager, JPL NeBula Autonomy and AI, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, with the Boston Dynamics robot.


“The Boston Dynamics Spot robot is one of the few robots that satisfies these constraints simultaneously,” said Agha. “So the integration of our robot brain, NeBula, into Spot pushed the boundaries of what was possible by exploring unknown Mars-like environments.”

Robots typically cannot communicate from inside the cave, so scientists anxiously await their return to the surface for data, which could include a 3D map of the cave interior, information on targets. scientific or general discoveries about the environment.

Some robots are also equipped with arms to bring back small samples from the cave walls for analysis. The researchers hope these robots can autonomously perform parts of future space missions, once humans build a certain level of trust with them.

“Next-generation robot bodies and mechanical locomotion capabilities would enable new types of missions over terrain that would otherwise be inaccessible to traditional rovers,” Agha said. “In addition, due to the increased speed and traversal capabilities, future missions may target destinations that are traditionally considered too far from landable regions on Mars.”

Boston Dynamics robots


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