Testing Mars exploration drones on Icelandic lava flows

How do you test a machine that’s designed to operate on another planet? A team from the University of Arizona is using the lava flow fields of Iceland to test out new concepts for drones and rovers which could be used to explore Mars.

The RAVEN project (Rover–Aerial Vehicle Exploration Networks) has received a grant from NASA to explore how aerial and ground-based vehicles can be combined to explore areas on Mars that are not currently possible to access. Current systems involve spacecraft that fly past or orbit a planet, landers that are sent to one place on a planet, and rovers that can move around on the surface.

“With RAVEN, we’re adding ‘fly’ to that list,” RAVEN team leader Christopher Hamilton said in a statement. “And not only that – the whole concept is really geared towards building new technology and procedures for two robots to work together on an extraterrestrial body. We are going to look at how a rover and a drone can work together to maximize the scientific output of such a mission.”

Christopher Hamilton pictured next to rover at Canadian Space Agency.
Christopher Hamilton pictured next to the rover at Canadian Space Agency. Christopher Hamilton/University of Arizona

The first helicopter to fly on another planet, Ingenuity, will soon land on Mars along with the Perseverance rover to see if exploration from the air is possible. If it is successful, it opens up possibilities for systems like RAVEN, which includes a prototype of a claw attached to a drone. It could be used to grab samples from far away and return them to a rover for analysis.

But these prototypes need to be tested on Earth before they can be sent to Mars, and that’s where Iceland comes in. The lava flow fields there include new areas that were only recently created from volcanic eruptions, so it is pristine and devoid of plant life and topsoil

“It’s some of the newest real estate in the world,” Hamilton said. “What makes it especially interesting to us is that the lava was emplaced in a sandy area, which is very similar to what some Martian terrains look like.”

Holuhraun lava flow field in Iceland where Christopher Hamilton and team are testing new ways for drones and rovers to work together to explore Mars
Holuhraun lava flow field in Iceland where Christopher Hamilton and team are testing new ways for drones and rovers to work together to explore Mars Christopher Hamilton/University of Arizona

Volcanic fields can be used to test out the maneuverability of rovers over rough terrain, as they have similar rock formations to those found on other planets. The idea is for a drone to fly out and scout an area, then identify and communicate a safe path which the rover can travel along. This is particularly valuable in the search for life on other planets, as some of the most promising places to look for microbes are areas around volcanoes that can be dangerous to traverse.

“Volcanic terrains offer exciting targets for exploration because of their potential to generate habitable hydrothermal systems, which could support or preserve microbial life,” Hamilton said. “RAVEN would make such locations accessible for the first time.”

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