BUILDING A BETTER MARS ROBOT
TIMOTHY BARFOOT, professor, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies
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Due to their constantly changing positions in relation to each other, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact distance from Earth to Mars at any given time. At a minimum, the planets are 56 million kilometres apart; at a maximum, the gap spans 399 million
kilometres. In terms of communication, though, it can take 20 minutes for instructions in a radio signal from Earth to reach a mobile robot on the surface of Mars.
And waiting for the machine to follow orders isn’t exactly a good use of time.
Timothy Barfoot is enhancing the efficiency of robots involved in planetary exploration by reducing their dependence on human commands. His algorithms and software programs help a robot independently move from one location to another by undertaking a series of small and important steps—from taking pictures of extreme terrain and selecting a safe route, to monitoring its progress on the way and recognizing when its destination has been reached.
To further advance his research, Barfoot has partnered with the Canadian Space Agency and MDA Space Missions, which includes the former SPAR Aerospace, the company behind the Canadarm. His work also involves researchers from U of T, Western, Queen’s, York and Ryerson Universities.
When human interaction with a Mars rover is kept to a minimum, the mobile robot can cover larger areas and collect data more effectively. And ultimately, learning more about the Red Planet will help improve the value of space missions.
Barfoot is investigating other applications for his research and hopes to begin work on self-driving cars, autonomous trains and mobile robots in the mining industry.
“Instead of telling the machine to move two inches to the
left, we will tell it to go find 10 interesting rocks, put
the spectrometer against those rocks and get a reading.”