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Future Mars rovers to change shape, rappel cliffs

Prototype of an unmanned SUV for Mars,  the all-terrain explorer can shift its shape.
Prototype of an unmanned SUV for Mars, the all-terrain explorer can shift its shape.  

By Allard Beutel
CNN Headline News Correspondent

(CNN) -- NASA engineers are working on the next generation of robotic explorers for Mars, a mechanized fleet that will be able to go where no rover has gone before.

Scientists would love to send the mobile machines to areas where satellite images suggest that water once flowed or might still remain underground. But a major obstacle is that the presumed wet spots are located in rugged terrain, like on steep hills and at the base of cliffs.

The current breed of rovers cannot reach such places, so NASA engineers are in the early stages of developing their version of a sports utility vehicle robot, which they call the all-terrain explorer.

A prototype can move on sandy slopes with 50-degree slants, and even reconfigure parts of its body to maintain its balance as it rolls over rough terrain, using cameras, sensors and new software.

"The all-terrain explorer is designed to react to changes in the ground ahead of it," explained Paul Schenker, robotics supervisor for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA cliff-bots practice on tough Earth terrain.
NASA cliff-bots practice on tough Earth terrain.  

"We have to give them an agility that is behaviorally intelligent. That is, they have to recognize they're entering a difficult region. They have to be able to control themselves in a way that will allow them to safely access and traverse the regions."

But even the most sure-footed rover could not navigate a cliff, unless it is NASA's new "cliff-bot." A prototype is being made to get to those really hard-to-reach science locations.

"It's literally a climbing team. It's three, closely cooperating robots that enable one to do some rather dramatic things," said Schenker, such as, "going down and up cliffs that are on the order of 70, 75 degrees."

The concept is that two "anchor-bot" rovers position themselves at the edge of a cliff. A third rover, the cliff-bot, is tethered to the anchor-bots. Using wireless communications and new control software, the three rovers coordinate their actions.

"The cliff-bot can tell the anchor robots which direction it's trying to move in. And the others can basically try to synchronize their actions with the action of the cliff-bot in order to accomplish the task safely," said NASA engineer Paolo Pirjanian.

Autonomous rovers with this level of sophistication will not be ready for more than a decade, according to NASA. In the meantime, engineers are considering combining the abilities of both these robots to create a truly all-terrain rover.




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