The fact that the Mars helicopter “Ingenuity” is currently exploring the Red Planet is partly due to navigation technology co-developed by Stephan Weiss, Professor of Control of Networked Systems at the University of Klagenfurt. Three of his doctoral students are now scheduled to take part in the AMADEE-20 Mars mission simulation organised by the Austrian Space Forum (ÖWF) from 4 to 10 October 2021, where they will collect data in the Negev Desert in Israel in order to further refine the helicopter.
Since GPS signals are not available on Mars, robots that explore the alien planet require an alternative navigation technology. “The Mars helicopter navigates by camera, which means that we equip it with artificial ‘eyes’ that help to find its way”, Christian Brommer says. Together with his colleagues Alessandro Fornasier and Martin Scheiber, he will leave for Israel at the beginning of October.
What sounds simple is actually highly complex, given that the helicopter is exploring previously unknown terrain and must therefore fly as accurately and as steadily as possible. Christian Brommer explains: “The Negev Desert offers Mars-like conditions, i.e. cliffs and slopes, as well as different soil textures. This allows us to gather a lot of data which should enable us to make major advances in autonomous navigation technology.” The helicopter to be deployed in Israel is equipped with the same sensors as Ingenuity. The data to be collected includes details on different landscapes, speeds, and distances between the ground and the helicopter. “We also have sensors on board that capture highly accurate GPS data. This allows us to compute the true helicopter orientation and to compare this against our camera based navigation method”, Brommer goes on. The collected data will also be made available to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and will be discussed with colleagues there once the analogue mission has been completed.
The experiments conducted by the Klagenfurt research team are part of the AMADEE-20 Mars simulation. From 4 to 31 October 2021, the Austrian Space Forum – in cooperation with the Israeli state space agency Israel Space Agency and D-MARS – will run a holistic analogue Mars field simulation in the Negev Desert in Israel. This expedition will take place in a so-called terrestrial Mars analogue environment and will be led by a Mission Support Centre operating from Austria. The test site is located in the Ramon Crater, the largest erosion crater in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. The test site is highly varied from a geological perspective: It ranges from sandy sedimentary structures that have been eroding for 70 million years to volcanic cones that are still young, dating back only a few thousand years. Altogether, 20 research groups are on board, each addressing a different set of questions.