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Lunar robots go for a test drive on Italy’s Etna volcano

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The German Aerospace Center completed a key part of the Helmholtz Future Project Autonomous Robotic Networks to Help Modern Societies (ARCHES) at Mount Etna in Italy. At the active volcano, researches tested a team of robots and their ability to communicate with each other. 

“Teams of mobile robots have an important role to play in future space missions. Operating in heterogeneous teams, the robots complement and support each other with their different capabilities. They serve as an extension of human arms and eyes,” Armin Wedler, project manager at the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, said.

Mount Etna provided an ideal landscape to test the capabilities of the team’s robots. The volcanic location has some geographic similarities to the Moon, such as lava landscapes and a granular surface. Mount Etna’s surface, which has a loose, coarse-grained composition, and solidified lava layers, provided realistic challenges for the robots during their missions.

The first of the robots tested at the volcano are Lightweight Rover Unit 1 (LRU1) and 2 (LRU2). These two robots work together autonomously, with LRU1 serving as the brain of the mission. LRU1 evaluates soil samples using its cameras, while LRU2, the assistant, collects surface samples and analyzes them with Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS). 

LIBS involves LRU2 directing a powerful, pulsed laser beam onto a sample, partially vaporizing the material. It then detects different elements in the resulting plasma. LIBS was developed by the DLR Institute of Optical Sensor Systems. 

LRU2 also transports storage containers, has extra space for tools and ensures that LRU1 always has WiFi connectivity. 

In addition to LRU1 and LRU2, the German Aerospace team tested ARDEA, a drone that acts as a scout for the mission. ARDEA is able to map the area that the robots are exploring. The team, however, was unable to test all of AREA’s capabilities because of high wind on the mountain. 

Two landers were also tested at Mount Etna, the Interact Rover and Scout Rover. Like LRU2, the Interact Rover collects rock samples to bring back to the lander. Interact is equipped with a camera arm and a gripper arm that can provide haptic feedback to a teleoperator. 

While LRU1 and LRU2 were testing their autonomous capabilities at Mount Etna, the rovers were testing their teleoperation capabilities. Haptic feedback allows remote scientists to gain a tactile feel for the rock samples. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology developed the robotic arm with a hand to act as a haptic human-machine interface. 

The Scout Rover is equipped with a WiFi repeated. Scout positions itself so that Interact has a continuous connection to the control room, something that is essential for remote operations. 

When testing the teleoperation capabilities of the rovers, a German astronaut, Thomas Reiter, operated the robots from a special control room in Catania, around 14 miles away from the mountain. 

The ARCHES project aimed at demonstrating the autonomous and interconnected potential for heterogeneous robotic systems. The demonstration was originally planned for the summer of 2020, but was delayed until this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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