Scientific Exploration of Challenging Planetary Analog Environments with a Team of Legged Robots

by   Philip Arm, et al.

The interest in exploring planetary bodies for scientific investigation and in-situ resource utilization is ever-rising. Yet, many sites of interest are inaccessible to state-of-the-art planetary exploration robots because of the robots' inability to traverse steep slopes, unstructured terrain, and loose soil. Additionally, current single-robot approaches only allow a limited exploration speed and a single set of skills. Here, we present a team of legged robots with complementary skills for exploration missions in challenging planetary analog environments. We equipped the robots with an efficient locomotion controller, a mapping pipeline for online and post-mission visualization, instance segmentation to highlight scientific targets, and scientific instruments for remote and in-situ investigation. Furthermore, we integrated a robotic arm on one of the robots to enable high-precision measurements. Legged robots can swiftly navigate representative terrains, such as granular slopes beyond 25 degrees, loose soil, and unstructured terrain, highlighting their advantages compared to wheeled rover systems. We successfully verified the approach in analog deployments at the BeyondGravity ExoMars rover testbed, in a quarry in Switzerland, and at the Space Resources Challenge in Luxembourg. Our results show that a team of legged robots with advanced locomotion, perception, and measurement skills, as well as task-level autonomy, can conduct successful, effective missions in a short time. Our approach enables the scientific exploration of planetary target sites that are currently out of human and robotic reach.


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