Bristol-based company SCISYS has successfully demonstrated an autonomous “Mars Rover” navigation system in the Atacama Desert, Chile, using a unique technique which offers considerable promise for both space and terrestrial unmanned vehicles of the future.

As part of the European Space Agency challenge-style innovation programme called STARTIGER-SEEKER, an unmanned vehicle autonomously traversed an accumulated distance of 5km across the “Mars Analogue” rock field across the Atacama Desert in a single day. Uniquely, the system relied only on low-cost single stereo cameras, inertial measurement units and a sun sensor, unlike terrestrial alternatives which rely on more expensive laser and multiple camera systems.

SCISYS was the instigator, technical lead, system developer and provided key autonomy components for the demonstration, which was conceived to establish if state-of-the-art computer vision could allow future Mars Rovers to travel well beyond their current limit of just over 200m per day without costly and time-consuming ground operator interventions. The project partners consisted of RAL Space (Project co-ordinators and infrastructure provision), BAE Systems, Roke Manor Research, LAAS, MDA UK and Oxford University. The demonstration was overseen by ESA staff at the Chilean Field Test site.

Dr Mark Woods, Technical Lead for the Project commented: “SEEKER has been a true test of solving challenges through partnership and then proving solutions work in the real world. For us the Chilean trial confirms this. It has been hard, intensive work over a 6 month period and we all played our parts in making this a team success. Naturally I’m delighted the SCISYS autonomy software framework (Overseer) and related components have now been successfully demonstrated in the most challenging of environments. We will now take these into future space and terrestrial unmanned vehicle programmes. First though we are all going to catch up on some sleep!”

This is the first time such a long-range autonomous traverse has been carried out by a European space team in such a highly representative terrain. Previous demonstrations have been carried out over small distances in artificial Mars Yard facilities, quarries and beach locations. The trials have demonstrated conclusively that such high-fidelity trials are essential to fully validate software/hardware and they provide an operational insight for future Mars missions. The accumulated data set with associated differential global positioning System (DGPS) ground truth also represents a unique resource for further testing and evaluation. The complete software system consisted of mission control, planning (off-board), on-board planning, execution/timeline control, autonomous path planning, absolute localisation, visual odometery, 3D map construction and imaging control.

Source: SCISYS

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