This Next-Gen Prototype Mars Rover Remade the Wheel to Avoid Sand Traps

This Mini Rover — a scaled-down version of one of NASA's — employs special wheels with "wiggle" room to help navigate difficult interplanetary terrain on Mars and the moon.
Brad Bergan

The next generation of interplanetary landing vehicles and probes are in development, and forthcoming missions to the moon and Mars will require new machines capable of navigating wild terrain, including loose soil and rolling hills. With this in mind, a new wheeled robot called the Mini Rover — a scaled-down version of one of NASA's — could reflect the new look of future interplanetary rovers, according to the May 13 issue of the journal Science Robotics.


Mini Rover: a next-gen Mars rover design

The Mini Rover is a scaled-down prototype designed by Dunn Family Professor Dan Goldman of Georgia Tech's School of Physics, along with his student team, consisting of Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin, Siddharth Shrivastava, Andras Karsai, and several others. Together they collaborated with NASA's William Bluethmann and Robert Ambrose — and made a trip to NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, to have a more personal impression of the real-life NASA RP15 rover.

The version from Georgia Tech uses multifunctional appendages with spinning wheels that "wiggle" and lift if a planetary exploration robot is mired in fine sand, clumping dirt, or granular mounds — all of which reduce rover mobility. Georgia Tech's Mini Rover's design is derived from one of NASA's and was later tested in a lab to research new locomotion techniques that could help aid its ability to climb hills smothered in powdery material.

Georgia Tech Mini Rover
The Mini Rover makes its way up a laboratory sand track. Source: Moore / Georgia Tech

Interplanetary bumps in a rover's road

"When loose materials flow, that can create problems for robots moving across it," said Dan Goldman to TechXplore. "This rover has enough degrees of freedom that it can get out of jams pretty effectively. But avalanching materials from the front wheels, it creates a localized fluid hill for the back wheels that is not as steep as the real slope. The rover is always self-generating and self-organizing and a good hill for itself."

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Goldman and his colleagues' research received support from NASA's National Robotics Initiative and the Army Research Office and were featured in the Science Robotics paper, according to which interplanetary rovers must overcome many challenges in soft regolith matter while roaming extraterrestrial terrain.

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