Robo-dog Set for Mars Mission
|The specially adapted ‘rover’|
Physics undergraduates from the University of Leicester are taking a dog on its toughest walkies yet: to the barren surface of Mars. However, this particular dog is the robotic kind and, to reach the Martian surface, they’ll only need to travel as far as Leicester’s National Space Centre.
As part of their third-year group research project the students have been researching and testing the limits of a Sony Aibo robotic dog to see if such a robotic system would be fit for Mars exploration.
Student Melissa McHugh explained: “We have tested the use of his legs on Mars and have tried his ability to climb slopes and transverse across uneven terrain, such as sand. We have also written programs that allow the dog to pick himself up if he falls, to determine his own local direction without the need of GPS or a compass and to take 3-D images of nearby objects, just like the real Mars rovers.
“From this project, we will appreciate what is required of the real Martian rovers and the challenges that they and the scientists involved face.”
On March 12, 2011, the group, also including Michael Perry, Nathan Pilkington and Stuart Turner, tested their ‘rover’ on the National Space Centre’s simulated Mars environment where visitors were able to get involved and ask questions. The Centre was the brainchild of University of Leicester space scientists and a number of its students, including Melissa, work there part-time.
Melissa said, “The simulated Martian landscape at the National Space Centre is the most realistic and accessible testing facility we have; it was commissioned and built by EADS ASTRIUM for testing the prototypes for the upcoming Exomars project. Using the simulated landscape will drastically improve the outcome of our tests, increasing the validity of the results — always important in physics!
“We hope that seeing some ‘physics research in action’ will inspire people and show that physics isn’t all about equations and maths. We want them to see that physics and space research are just as fun as they are important.”
Darren Wright of the Department of Physics and Astronomy is pleased that his group of students are taking their project one step further. “Such projects provide an invaluable contribution to the department’s teaching program and allow our students to think innovatively.