NASA will use swarms of robot vehicles for future planetary exploration, including Moon explorations in support of a sustained lunar presence. Advanced robotic and autonomous systems can overcome challenges inherent in navigating extreme terrain. Other tasks, such as obtaining mineral or ice samples from a wide area of a planetary surface or exploring terrain that blocks the transmission of signals to Earth or satellites (e.g., canyons, caves, lava tubes), lend themselves to robotic systems composed of multiple vehicles working in a coordinated fashion (i.e., multi-robot swarms). In addition to sharing work across the team, these swarms can adapt to changing exploration needs, and provide resiliency to failure of single vehicles while being scalable to accept additional vehicles when needed. Charles River Analytics and the Novel Engineering for Swarm Technologies (NEST) Laboratory at Worcester Polytechnic Institute will design and demonstrate Autonomous Swarming for Teams of Exploration Robots (ASTER). We introduce three compelling innovations to swarm systems: (1) the use of composable behavior primitives to achieve tasks and that can respond autonomously to unexpected situations; (2) the design of behavior primitives that use heterogeneous capabilities on swarm vehicles to achieve tasks; and (3) the design of behavior primitives that enable the swarm to manage faults as swarm vehicle capabilities degrade over time. ASTER will use three technologies: Charles River’s Swarm Coordination Framework for rapid prototyping and analysis of behaviors, the Buzz swarm programming language for coordinating behaviors among physical robots, and the ARGoS multi-physics simulation engine. We will develop three scenarios consistent with NASA’s Lunar Exploration Program Overview (September 2020), and perform thorough evaluations to support future research and transition opportunities. Our Phase I results will allow us to deploy this work on advanced hardware platforms in Phase II.
The innovations proposed under ASTER are relevant to the NASA Small Spacecraft Technology Program (SSTP) and the 2018 NASA Strategic Plan’s focus on advanced robotic and autonomous systems. Plans to use Commercial Lunar Payload Services to return humans to the Moon and establish a sustained lunar presence will depend on exploring the lunar surface for resources necessary to maintain operations. Lessons learned from using robot swarms on the Moon will inform future voyages to planets (e.g., Mars) and asteroids.
The Army’s Air Launched Effects (ALE) program, US Navy’s RAIDER, DARPA’s OFFSET, and work at other Government agencies will benefit from these innovations, as will commercial companies working with the Government (e.g., AeroVironment). The use of swarms in precision agriculture, commercial delivery systems, factory floor automation, and construction are other avenues we will pursue.