Teamwork in space: Robots pave the way for crewed lunar missions and sustainable space research (w/video)

(Nanowerk News) To survive on the moon, humans need a lot of resources. Transporting them to the earth's satellite by spaceship would be extremely expensive. There is a much cheaper and sustainable solution: special manufacturing plants that can extract and process raw materials directly on site.
For this purpose, a European consortium with the participation of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) developed technologies in the Pro-Act project that allow several robots to cooperate in the construction of these plants and perform complex tasks in preparation for human missions. The successfully completed project was funded by the European Commission.
The time is set for 2025: That is when the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch the first demonstration mission to the moon for the so-called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). With the help of ISRU technologies, raw materials available on foreign planets can be used to produce resources required for space missions, such as drinking water, oxygen or building materials for human habitats, which would otherwise have to be brought from Earth at great expense. Not only does this save immense costs.
The technologies are also of great importance when it comes to sustainable space exploration. Additionally, robotic systems will play a crucial role in the construction and assembly of ISRU plants, further reducing the costs and risks of a human mission.

Basic technologies for robotic collaboration on the moon

In preparation for future crewed missions on alien planets, robots must be able to operate autonomously as a team to perform complex tasks, such as conducting scientific investigations or building infrastructure.
The goal of the Pro-Act project, which started in February 2019, was to develop the necessary basic technologies for this purpose and to demonstrate their functionality in a lunar mission scenario. With its long-standing expertise in the field of space robotics, DFKI's Robotics Innovation Center was part of the project consortium, led by the Belgian company Space Applications Services, which consisted of a total of nine European companies and institutions from six different countries.

Heterogeneous robotic team cooperates to build ISRU plant

The project focused on the collaboration of three different types of robotic systems – the six-legged walking robot "Mantis" from DFKI, the rover "VELES" from the Polish company PIAP Space, and the Mobile Gantry from the Spanish company AVS – whose common goal is to build an ISRU plant with supporting infrastructure.
To do so, the heterogeneous team of robots combined their strengths: Thanks to its six limbs, of which it can also use the two in front for manipulation, the walking robot Mantis is characterized by a high degree of flexibility and masters even difficult terrain. The VELES rover can cover longer distances and transport particularly heavy payloads with the aid of its robotic arm. The Mobile Gantry, which can be deployed autonomously or with the support of Mantis and VELES, has a cables-based end effector that can grasp object and serve as a 3D printer.
In Pro-Act, the printing of components for the assembly of the ISRU plant using the regolith available on the Moon was simulated, to validate its feasibility in a real mission. To enable autonomous cooperation among the three robots, the project partners further developed the software and hardware technologies that emerged from the SRC's predecessor projects and adapted them to the PRO-ACT scenario.
Thanks to the ability to set cooperative goals, collaborative mission planning, and manipulation, the robotic systems were able to work together, helping each other to accomplish various tasks.
In addition to the further development and adaptation of Mantis to the mission scenario on the software and hardware side, the Robotics Innovation Center was also responsible for providing a simulation environment. This allowed the partners to test their software on robot simulations before it was implemented on the 'real' systems. This way, many problems could be detected and corrected at an early stage. In addition, the Bremen researchers developed interfaces that enabled the use of the partners’ software on Mantis.
Finally, the cooperation of the robots was to be tested in the space exploration hall of the DFKI. However, these plans were thwarted by the Coronavirus pandemic: not all partners were able to travel to the first joint tests in September 2020, so the robotic team remained incomplete. The final tests in March 2021 had to be performed completely virtually via remote connection in 4 different locations, which posed further challenges, such as unstable Internet connections and time delays, especially regarding the cooperation of the robots.
Despite all this, the partners adapted to those complex challenges, employing efficient planning, communication, and remote support strategies, and in the end managed to successfully demonstrate how this team of robots can work together to create environment maps and transport components. They also gained extensive experience in teleoperation that will be of great benefit to future planetary space missions.
Source: German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence
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