Roll Over Rover: Robotics and the “Final Frontier”
How many robots does it take to screw in a light bulb? That question is no joke to Dr. Tim Barfoot, who is improving the technology used by Mars planetary rovers, allowing them to better collect data and, ultimately, to prepare the Red Planet’s surface for human landing.
Humans have never set foot on another planet. Before they do, robots have to touch down first. This will continue to happen on exploratory missions in the decades to come. It will also happen in the years and months immediately before human touchdown, when robots could perform many vital preparatory tasks, such as drilling for frozen water, or breaking down and then recombining elements in the atmosphere to produce fuel for the humans' ride home.
As Canada Research Chair in Autonomous Space Robotics, Barfoot will help Mars rovers overcome some big obstacles, literally and figuratively. Recent rovers have travelled conservatively, often waiting for human instruction, which can only happen once a day. That means it can take four months for a rover to travel one kilometre, and three days for it to position a single scientific instrument (and then, only after humans reviewed its photos and told it where to put it). But giving existing rovers more autonomy would be dangerous, especially considering that one mistake could undo years of planning and cost billions of dollars.
Barfoot hopes to change that, and if anyone can, it’s him. Recruited from the company that supplies the Canadarm, Barfoot sees a day when rovers can navigate extreme terrain, hopping or perhaps even flying to sites of scientific interest—sites that next-generation rovers might even be smart enough to choose on their own. Freed from once-a-day instructions from Earth, these rovers could better collect information and cover large areas.
The day humans land on Mars is sure to be remembered for all time, and by building on Canada’s reputation in space robotics, Barfoot’s work will ensure Canadians play a key role in such a defining moment. And while furthering these distant goals, he’ll also be pioneering technology that is immediately useful on Earth, helping many industries, including Canada’s important resource exploration sector.