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Robot preps for space – in Spain

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The European Commission is promoting future space exploration with the Planetary Robotics Vision Scout project, or PRoViScout. As a collaborative EU project, PRoViScout unites major European groups working to create robotic vision for planetary space exploration. The result is futuristic technology – today.

It wasn’t Mars – but it will be someday.

In September, a robot called Idris took part in field trials on the Canary Islands as part of the Planetary Robotics Vision Scout project, or PRoViScout. The trials were held at the El Teide National Park in Tenerife, a destination that shares many of the same characteristics found on the surface of Mars: flat landscape, fine volcanic sand, pebbles and rocky outcrops.

PRoViScout, a collaborative EU project funded under the Seventh Framework Programme, or FP7, brings together major European groups working on robotic vision for planetary space exploration. To that end, the Idris robot was taken to the Canaries by the Aberystwyth University (UK) Department of Computer Science, one of numerous universities and research groups taking part in PRoViScout.

The September tests helped advance PRoViScout’s mission to develop better computer vision-based techniques for identifying navigational hazards and spotting points of scientific intrigue for further study. These tasks – which were executed with no human intervention – are crucial to future long-range scouting and exploration missions on other planets.

This groundwork is integral for space missions, which are becoming more ambitious and, by extension, longer. Such missions will need to be more self-reliant than current ones, with robots making their own decisions about navigating, selecting important science samples and possibly even collecting samples for return to Earth.

Mobile systems like the ones tested at El Teide are critical to space missions. With rapid and robust on-site processing and preparation of scientific data, operations become more efficient and are enabled to make maximum use of their limited lifetime. ProViScout will provide the robotic vision building blocks for these types of autonomous exploration systems.

Professor Dave Barnes, of the Space and Planetary Robotics Group at the University’s Department of Computer Science, said: ‘In 2011, there was a Tenerife field test as part of the PRoViSG project, using the Astrium Bridget rover developed by EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space). This past September, it was an Aberystwyth rover that identified science targets and navigated to these targets using new sophisticated software developed during the PRoViScout project’.

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