Seeking to create a next-generation quadrupedal rover capable of jumping in low-gravity environments, the Swiss robotics laboratories at ETH Zurich and ZHAW Winterthur have designed an agile exploration vehicle named SpaceBok.
The ambitious SpaceBok team is made up of 12 students from ETH Zurich and ZHAW Winterthur in Switzerland, whose diverse fields of study encompass mechanical, electrical and systems engineering. The student team operates under the direct supervision of Professor Marco Hutter and doctoral student Hendrik Kolvenbach. Once deployed, the mechanical prowess of this running rover could allow it to leap to a staggering 13 feet on the Moon.
One of the main goals of the project is to reimagine locomotion for space exploration under low gravity conditions encountered on the Moon or Mars. SpaceBok’s abilities include walking, jumping, and jumping over large obstacles. (Check out his movements in the official introductory video from the European Space Agency HERE.)
The sandy, rocky and steep slopes with loose soil seen via images returned by NASA’s Perseverance rover and previous missions to Mars reveal that it could be difficult terrain for any four-legged robot. SpaceBok has therefore undergone a rigorous testing process over the past two years at ESA’s Mars Yard facility. This experimental Mars Yard âsandboxâ is enriched with different sizes of sand, gravel and rock and is aligned with the planetary robotics laboratory at the Agency’s ESTEC technical center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.
SpaceBok, named after the happy-hop springbok antelope, has now marked a major upgrade from Mars for potential off-road service to the Red Planet, according to Wired. Specially adjusted, less elastic gaits and different styles of interchangeable legs could greatly aid SpaceBok’s planetary performance.
“We wanted to show that with these dynamically functioning systems nowadays, they can actually walk on Martian sand,” Hendrik Kolvenbach, ETH Zurich roboticist and lead author of the study, told Wired. âIt’s a technology that has a lot of potential now for the future. “
To test the rover in harsh conditions on the Red Planet, the researchers fitted versions of SpaceBok with two types of feet: point and planar. The pointed feet have a reduced surface area similar to the hoof of a real antelope. The flat feet are flat, pivoting circles that bend as each pod foot contacts the ground, almost like a small snowshoe with built-in crampons for added traction.
After being outfitted with shiny new shoes, the team unleashed SpaceBok in a huge sloping sandbox filled with various materials that mimic Martian soil. This allowed scientists to determine whether or not any of these setups helped him climb a plane at 25 degrees.
âOne of the surprising findings was that the pointy feet didn’t perform that badly on this particular slope, due to this high sag,â Kolvenbach said. âBasically they offer a pretty stable position. “
The flat feet apparently performed less well due to increased slippage. It has been determined that the best design is somewhere in between the two different designs.
For now, the team will continue to develop and refine SpaceBok for future ESA and NASA missions, where these new methods of exploring and traversing the terrain could be beneficial when autonomous wheeled rovers fail. fail to tell the difference in slippery and adverse conditions.
“Legged robots may not replace wheeled robots in space,” roboticist Tnnes Nygaard of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment tells Wired. “But they could certainly make a valuable contribution and play an important role in the team.”