Electric vehicles are inching towards the mainstream in America, but they’re already the norm on the surface of the moon. While some of the robots created by NASA rely on solar panels for electricity, a group of research firms that includes Germany’s Bosch is leveraging familiar technology to help next-generation machines find charging stations.
Bosch, Astrobotic, WiBotic, and the University of Washington are developing ways to keep robots juiced up during the lunar night so that they keep continue exploring even when solar panels go to sleep. Engineers are relying on wireless charging, which is normally associated with smartphones and electric cars, and autonomous navigation. On paper, the project is simple: When their batteries are low, the robots will autonomously find a wireless charging pad.
Making this system work on our planet is easier said than done, so fine-tuning it for lunar use is more complicated than it sounds. Notably, the high-riding exploration robots will not be able to rely on GPS to find their destination.
“Navigating a robot on the moon is not the same as navigating a robotic vacuum cleaner through your home, or navigating a self-driving car on the road. Radio-based terrestrial localization solutions are not available on the moon, and the unpredictable lunar terrain and dust make it even harder to perform precise navigation using visual cues alone. Thus, we need intelligent fusion and perception on the robot’s multi-sensory data to solve this unique challenge,” Dr. Samarjit Das, Bosch’s leader of Intelligent IoT group, explained in a statement.
Multi-sensor fusion technologies are at the core of the project. Robots will move around by analyzing video footage, inertial measurement units, radio frequency movements, and vibrations. The data gathered by these sensors will help the robots gauge the depth of a crater, for example. Bosch will work with Astrobotic’s CubeRover (shown above), which is about the size of a shoebox and weighs under five pounds, so it’s not going to be testing a monster truck of a rig with the turning radius of a Freightliner. It’s nimble, which greatly facilitates the project.
Meanwhile, the University of Washington and WiBotic will develop the wireless charger. It will be light, and it will deliver ultra-fast charging so the robots aren’t down for hours at a time. Astronauts get range anxiety, too.
NASA’s Tipping Point program is investing $5.8 million into the project, and researchers hope to demonstrate the technology halfway through 2023. If everything goes according to plan, the technology developed for this project will likely trickle into other exploration programs. Reliable autonomous robots could later ultimately parts of the moon we’ve never explored, for example, or the system could be modified to let them roam on other planets.