hen the first human steps onto Martian soil, there's likely to be a robotic companion tagging along, thanks to the collaborative design work of engineers from WPI and Hamilton Standard in Windsor Locks, Conn. Dubbed FIDOE (Fully Independent Delivery of Expendables), the autonomous, self-propelled robot will follow an astronaut on daily explorations, carrying oxygen and equipment for gathering soil and rock samples.
It's not the stuff of science fiction anymore. If NASA's current scenarios prevail, a two-year manned mission to Mars will take place in 2009. Two years earlier, an unmanned spaceship will drop off equipment to establish a power plant and habitat for the astronauts. The astronauts will be expected to put in six- to eight-hour days on the surface, so they will need to take multiple life-support packs with them on their excursions.
"On Mars, which has about one-third of Earth's gravity, people won't be able to carry hundreds of pounds of equipment, as astronauts did on the Moon," says team advisor John Sullivan Jr., associate professor of mechanical engineering. "They'll need a robot that can act like a pack mule, following close by and responding to voice commands."
From left, Mars robot team members Keisuke Watanabe, John Sullivan, Ed Gaboriault, Paul Bunuan (aloft), Thomas Parent and Eben Cobb conduct a bit of field work.
Together with Eben Cobb, visiting assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Sullivan supervises a research team that includes senior mechanical engineering majors Ed Gaboriault, Thomas Parent and Keisuke Watanabe, who are designing the power train and transmission for their Major Qualifying Project, and manufacturing engineering graduate student Paul Bunuan, who is designing the communication and remote sensing systems. The team expects to have a prototype ready for Hamilton Standard early in 1998.
"I view research as education," Sullivan says. "You're usually stepping out into areas you don't know." That's especially true for the Mars robot project, he notes, which has required the team to integrate knowledge from several disciplines - many of which they had had little or no exposure to previously.
The prototype robot, which will measure just 3 feet wide by 3 feet long, must perform a multitude of functions. It must be rugged enough to traverse the rocky Martian landscape carrying heavy equipment- and even an injured person. It must be smart enough to track an astronaut with a radio triangulation system and detect and avoid obstacles. It must monitor the condition of the astronaut and record the feeds from video cameras and microphones built into the astronauts' helmets. And, it must carry an oxygen storage system that can be easily connected several times a day to the space suit that will be designed by Hamilton Standard.
Hamilton Standard contacted WPI about collaborating on the Mars robot project in the spring of 1997 after WPI's strong performance in the annual FIRST robot competition. FIRST (www.usfirst.org) is a national creative engineering contest featuring high school, industry and university partnerships. Each team has seven weeks to brainstorm, design, construct and test their robot. Sullivan advised the WPI and Massachusetts Academy of Mathematics and Science high school team. The team, with its robot, "Extensor," won the Proctor & Gamble Creativity Award in the Mid-Atlantic regional competition and the Number One Seed Award in the national competition at EPCOT Center in Orlando, Fla.
The integration of research and education represented by the Mars robot project continues when Sullivan and Cobb enter the classroom. Sullivan uses numerous components of the project in his engineering experimentation course. Similarly, multiple robotic components are designed and modeled in Cobb's course Introduction to Computer-Aided Design "There really are no clear boundaries between education and research," Cobb says. "It's an integrated process all the time."
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