What kind of testing does the Automation and Robotics Laboratory carry out?

Eurobot - artist's impression

The Laboratory performs testing on all types of robotics systems. Rovers are the best known space robot variant, and the Laboratory uses a dedicated Planetary Utilisation Testbed to evaluate rover performance over terrain representative of planetary landscapes. How much energy does it take the rover to move how far? Can it adequately sense the environment around it and navigate it in a reliable manner – with or without a human operator?

The motion of the rover relative to the surface beneath it needs to be captured as completely as possible. The geometry of the terrain is precisely measured using a 3D laser scanner while the motion of robots across the terrain can be tracked using motion capture system recording position, velocity and acceleration. The rover's performance in terms of 'terramechanics' – how its wheels or tracks interact with the soil beneath it – can also be assessed, or even its subsurface drilling ability.

Yet robots do not have to be fully mobile to be useful. Modern microgravity payloads flown in space are compact automated laboratories which can implement entire scientific experiments, a capacity due in large part to the integration of automated systems. Another facility fitted with mocked-up payloads is used to assess the operational ability of these elements.

Other robot designs are evaluated in terms of their ability to perform space station maintenance, reducing the need for astronaut spacewalks. The three-limbed Eurobot is one example. Constructed for International Space Station (ISS) operations, it can clamber around the ISS exterior like an astronaut, then once it reaches the site of activity can be teleoperated by the crew inside.

Eurobot has its own testbed fitted with realistic sections of ISS modules which allows both autonomous activity and teleoperations testing. In general ESA designs its robot systems with these two types of operation in mind: broadly speaking, teleoperations remain feasible within Earth orbit but the further robots venture into space the more autonomous they must become.

Testing also extends to individual robotic technology 'building blocks', most notably vision and object recognition as well as robotic arms and manipulators. Specialised simulators and software allow virtual testing of robot designs, including the complex programming architectures that underpin robotic autonomy.

Last update: 4 September 2013

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