The deserts of Dhofar, the largest governorate in the Sultanate of Oman, bear a remarkable similarity to the surface of Mars in terms of structural composition. The Austrian Space Forum (ÖWF) has therefore chosen Oman as the location of a large-scale Analog Mars Mission scheduled for February 2018 in order to conduct field studies. 16 experiment teams will participate in this event, including the research group for autonomous drone navigation led by Stephan Weiss.
“Aircraft are fast and very maneuverable. They can explore unknown environments, for instance on Mars, more rapidly than ground-based robots”, Stephan Weiss (Department of Smart Systems Technologies at the AAU) explains. However, he says: “The problem we have is the navigation of these types of drones in situations where there is no GPS to rely on.” To address this issue, he and his team have been working on further developing camera-based methods for autonomous navigation designed, among others, to facilitate the deployment of helicopter aircraft during Mars Missions.
The drone to be tested is a small multicopter aircraft equipped with a camera and inertial measurement unit as well as a data processing system. Stephan Weiss explains: “The navigation algorithms on the drone have been designed to navigate over the terrain exclusively based on images recorded by its own on-board camera and on input from the system’s own inertial measurements.“ In the case of the mission in Oman, following the deployment of the aircraft, the images recorded by the on-board camera will be synchronised with inertial data and GPS. The goal is to verify whether the visual position sensing of the aircraft functions properly. “We plan to deploy the multicopter at different times of the day and over different landscapes . Subsequently, the gathered results will be compared”, Weiss explains.
The experiments will be conducted within the scope of the AMADEE-18 Mission of the Austrian Space Forum. Mission Control is located at the Mission Support Center in Innsbruck. This team matches Earth’s Ground Control in size and will communicate with the 15 members of the field crew in Oman, comprising members from nine different nations, including analogue astronauts. They will be conducting experiments in the fields of engineering, manned exploration of planetary surfaces, astrobiology, geophysics/geology, life sciences and more. The mission is scheduled to take place from the 1st to the 28th of February 2018.