New space exploration robot takes first steps

Hikers in the upper Arroyo Seco may have felt like they stumbled onto the set of a science-fiction movie this week when they crossed paths with ATHLETE, a new robotic-vehicle designed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for use in space exploration.

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The ATHLETE — short for All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer — is a joint project between NASA's JPL, Stanford University and the Boeing Company, and could one day be used to transport cargo on the surface of Mars or the moon.

JPL engineers took the rover-type vehicle out for trial runs in the upper Arroyo Seco on Tuesday and Thursday, and about eight more test runs in coming weeks.

The half-scale prototype that JPL is working with is the second version and was constructed this summer. It has a level cargo deck with six wheels attached to long limbs and weighs about 2.5 tons. It stands 15-feet high and wide.

"This is the first time we have done any testing in the Arroyo Seco," team leader Julie Townsend said. "We have done long test drives on campus before, but we needed somewhere to take a vehicle of this size out to let it stretch its legs a little bit more."

JPL lacked a large enough unpaved area for the robot, and it would have cost too much to send it to a test site, so they got permission from Pasadena to use the Arroyo Seco as a test-course.

The proximity of the Arroyo Seco to JPL allowed Townsend's team to secure the robot on site between tests and quickly return to the campus in case of a break down.

From late August to early September, ATHLETE will be in Arizona for an official demonstration. The robot must complete a 25-mile drive over 14 days through high desert under its own power at a pace of three to six miles a day.

"These trials allow us to take ATHLETE out and see what problems might be presented, instead of having them pop up in the middle of Arizona," Townsend said.

The vehicle combines the best of both worlds as far as walking and driving go, engineers said. Though faster than a Mars Exploration Rover, it's still pretty slow, moving at just 1.25 mph.

The robot-vehicle can also "walk" over obstacles in its path because its six wheels are each attached to the end of a limb, allowing it to navigate through extremely rough or steep terrain without getting stuck in sand like many Mars rovers do.

"It's basically an all around utility robot," Townsend said. "It's a very flexible platform that can do all types of things. ATHLETE is currently the only vehicle envisioned that could unload large cargo containers off the top of the Moon Lander and move it to a more useful location."

Although it has been five years since ATHLETE was conceptualized, the robot has still not been selected for a mission, Townsend said. If all goes according to plan, the robot could be transporting habitats and other cargo on the moon or Mars in six to 10 years.

For now, the approximately 20 JPL engineers and computer scientists who have been on the system part-time are working out a few kinks so the robot will be ready for its test next month.

"We are really happy with the way things are progressing," Townsend said. "We have about a month to prepare for our tests, which puts us in a very good position."


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