A connected robot team could improve our space exploration capabilities

A team of robots would still be able to complete a mission if one or two of the machines malfunction.
Chris Young
The trio of robots during tests in a Swiss gravel quarry.
The trio of robots during tests in a Swiss gravel quarry.

ETH Zurich / Takahiro Miki 

Swiss researchers led by ETH Zurich are exploring the possibility of sending an interconnected team of walking and flying exploration robots to the Moon, a press statement reveals.

In recent tests, the researchers equipped three ANYmal robots with scientific instruments to test whether they would be suitable for lunar exploitation.

ANYmal robots (pictured above) are similar to Boston Dynamics' famous quadrupedal Spot robot, though they were developed in-house at ETH Zurich.

The benefit of using multiple robots

The researchers tested their quadrupedal robots on several different terrains in Switzerland and at the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC) in Luxembourg.

They also won a European competition for lunar exploration at ESRIC, which involved finding and identifying minerals on a test modeled after the lunar surface.

In a new paper published in the journal Science Robotics, the researchers describe how their team of robots could be used for space exploration.

"Using multiple robots has two advantages," explained Philip Arm, a doctoral student in the group led by ETH Professor Marco Hutter. "The individual robots can take on specialized tasks and perform them simultaneously. Moreover, thanks to its redundancy, a robot team is able to compensate for a teammate's failure."

The team of robots was designed to have a good balance between this specialization and redundancy. During tests, two of the robots were deployed as specialists — one robot was programmed for mapping terrain with a Raman spectrometer and a microscopy camera, and the other was programmed for classifying geology with a laser scanner and several cameras.

The third robot was a generalist, and it was able to map the terrain and identify rocks, though with less specialized instruments and, therefore, less precision. "This makes it possible to complete the mission should any one of the robots malfunction,” Arm said.

Swarms of robots

The prize for the ESRIC competition was a one-year research contract to help them further develop their technology. The researchers will now turn their attention to different forms of traversal while keeping their focus on building a network of interconnected robots.

Next, they aim to experiment with wheeled and flying robots for lunar exploration. They also plan to make their robots more autonomous and less reliant on a single control center for commands.

We've already seen a rotorcraft — NASA's Ingenuity helicopter — take to the skies and act as an aerial scout for the Mars Perseverance rover. It may not be long before we see swarms of robots carrying out space exploration ahead of crewed missions to the same distant locations.

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