Testing Mars Exploration Drones on Icelandic Lava Flows

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

The RAVEN (Rover-Aerial Vehicle Exploration Networks) project has received a grant from NASA to study how aerial and ground vehicles can be combined to explore areas on Mars that are currently inaccessible. Current systems include space vehicles that fly past or orbit a planet, landers that are sent to a location on a planet, and rovers that can move on the surface.

“With RAVEN we are adding ‘fly’ to this list,” said Christopher Hamilton, RAVEN team leader, in a statement. “And not only that – the whole concept is really geared towards developing new technologies and procedures with which two robots can work together on an alien body. We’ll examine how a rover and drone can work together to maximize the scientific output of such a mission. “

Christopher Hamilton next to the Canadian Space Agency rover. 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 aerial exploration is possible. When successful, it opens up opportunities for systems like RAVEN, which includes a prototype of a claw attached to a drone. It could be used to remotely take samples 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 encompass new areas recently created from volcanic eruptions, so it is pristine and devoid of plants and topsoil

“It’s one of the newest properties in the world,” said Hamilton. “What makes it particularly interesting for us is that the lava was stored in a sandy area that is very similar to the appearance of some areas of Mars.”

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

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

“Volcanic terrain offers exciting exploration targets as it can create habitable hydrothermal systems that could support or sustain microbial life,” said Hamilton. “RAVEN would make such places accessible for the first time.”

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