German space agency completes robotic tests on Etna volcano inaccessible to humans

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Robots are able to walk in areas inaccessible to humans, and this has been proven in tests recently concluded by the German Space Agency (DLR). During the Helmholtz Future Project, Autonomous Robotic Networks to Help Modern Societies (ARCHES), the agency tested a range of robots on Italy’s Etna volcano, which has some geographic similarities to the Moon, such as the landscapes of lava and grainy surface. Interestingly, these tests involved a wide array of robotic systems that acted as the hands and eyes of the scientists controlling them remotely.

Objective of the tests

The main objective of the tests is to develop technologies that would allow exploration in areas inaccessible to humans. During the demonstrations on Etna, the deployed robots, including rovers, collected rock samples, analyzed them and transmitted the results to their control center. This was done as part of the first scenario, named “Geological Mission I”, out of three in total. And because the geography was similar to that of the Moon, it presented realistic challenges for lunar exploration missions to be conducted later this decade.

(Image: German Space Agency)

“Geological Mission I” involved two autonomous robots — Lightweight Rover Unit 1 (LRU1) and LRU2 — which were accompanied by a drone. While the “scientific” robot LRU1 evaluated soil samples using its cameras, its “assistant” LRU2 collected surface samples and analyzed them by breaking them down using lasers.

(Image: German Space Agency)

The German space agency said the three scenarios were based on different general conditions. For example, in the first scenario, German astronaut Thomas Reiter controlled the robots from a special control room about 23 kilometers from Mount Etna. While in the second scenario, which marks the conclusion of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Analog-1” campaign, a rover was controlled from the International Space Station (ISS) in 2019.

(Image: German Space Agency)

In addition to this, the third scenario called “LOFAR experiment” consisted in simulating the installation and maintenance of an array of low frequency radio antennas on the far side of the Moon, the side which is not visible from the Earth. DLR says the goal of its ARCHES project is to advance space, robotics, and ultimately planetary research.

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