Robots on earth help prepare for research on the moon

Robots on earth help prepare for research on the moon

By Scott Simmie

 

What could small robots on earth have to do with exploration on the moon?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Professors and engineering students at Polytechnique Montréal have been busy writing algorithms and running experiments with robots and drones with one goal in mind: To enable them to explore unfamiliar and even hostile surroundings far beyond the reach of GPS or other forms of precision location technology.

“What we want to do is to explore environments including caves and surfaces on other planets or satellites using robotics,” explains Dr. Giovanni Beltrame (Ph.D.), a full professor at Polytechnique’s Departments of Computer Engineering and Software Engineering.

Before we get to the how, let’s address the why.

“Caves and lava tubes can be ideal places for settlement: They can be sealed and provide radiation shielding. There’s also a chance of finding water ice in them,” says Dr. Beltrame.

Of course, it’s also less risky – and less expensive – to send robots to other planets and moons rather than human beings. They don’t require life support, don’t get tired (with the exception of having to recharge), and they can gather and process data quickly.

Just think of all the data that’s been acquired on Mars by the twin Rovers and the Mars helicopter.

Below: A selfie taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover November 1, 2023, during the the 960th Martian day of its mission. The rover was built with a focus on astrobiology, searching for signs of ancient microbial life on the red planet. Image courtesy of NASA.

Mars rover Perseverance

PREPARE ON EARTH, DEPLOY IN SPACE

 

It’s a pretty ambitious vision. But for Beltrame and his team, it’s also very real. And it requires a lot of work and research here on earth.

“So to get there (space) and do this with multiple robots, we’ve developed all sorts of technologies – navigation, perception, communication, coordination between the robots, and human-robot interfaces,” he says.

“We’re doing all these things, because our goal is to use a swarm of robots to do planetary exploration. There’s more, but that’s it in a nutshell.”

When you go to the moon, there’s no equivalent of GPS. And environments like caves can be really tricky – both in terms of robots understanding where they are, and also communicating with other robots beyond line of sight.

With the right technologies and algorithms, that communication is possible. And much of Beltrame’s research has involved testing this on earth. In particular, he’s focusing on how groups of robots could take on such tasks collaboratively.

“So our primary activities focus on swarm robotics,” he says.

Generally that starts with simulation models. But there are limits to simulations – and real-world testing is a big part of what’s going on at Polytechnique.

“So we do have this deployment philosophy that we try our technologies in simulation, but then we want to go to deploying robots. You can have the best simulation in the world, but there’s still a reality gap and it’s very extremely important to try things on the real robots,” he says.

“We have a saying in the lab, which is: ‘Everything works in simulation’. You can always make your algorithm work in simulation, and then you get out in the field and things go wrong. So one thing we do in the lab is we always do the full stack. That’s why we need to have real robots. And we don’t only do experiments with real robots in the lab, we do them in the field.”

MIST

 

The lab he’s referring to is known as Polytechnique’s MIST, which stands for Making Innovative Space Technology. Dr. Beltrame is the director of the lab, which focuses on computer engineering targeted towards space technologies. In addition to the researchers, the lab is home to a *lot* of robots. There are big ones, small ones, wheeled ones, flying ones (drones) – literally “hundreds” of robots at the lab.

But as Dr. Beltrame emphasised, proving that something will truly work requires testing in environments that are similar to what might be found on the moon or elsewhere. Locations where he’s carried out fieldwork include:

  • Lava Beds National Monument in California (with NASA JPL)
  • The Kentucky mega-cave with the CoSTAR team
  • Tequixtepec in Mexico with SpéléoQuébec

Just check out the images below of field work, courtesy of Dr. Beltrame:

THE INDRO CONNECTION

 

Some of the robots used in the MIST lab – and perhaps eventually on the moon – arrived via InDro Robotics, a North American distributor for AgileX. In fact, Polytechnique has purchased a number of AgileX products, including platforms that InDro has modified to help speed the R&D process. These include:

  • 24 LIMOs and simulation table
  • AgileX Scout Mini
  • AgileX Scout 2.0
  • Two AgileX Bunker Mini platforms, with custom builds by InDro

We’ve written about the LIMO before – a small, affordable and versatile robot capable of perceiving its environment and even Simultaneous Localization and Mapping out of the box. It’s also an ideal size, particuarly when doing multi-agent/swarm robotics, for use in the lab. (You’d run out of space pretty fast with something much larger).

“The LIMOs are a very good platform for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping  – and perception in general,” says Beltrame.

He says they’re a good choice “because they have a 3D camera, they’re lighter, agile, and are sufficiently low in cost. So we can use them in large numbers. Another good thing about the LIMOs is that once you have a lot of similar robots that are reasonably agile, you can actually make a full deployment of software (across all robots).”

That makes them an ideal platform for multi-agent research and development.

“For example, we developed this tool called Swarm SLAM where many robots collaborate to have a better perception of the environment. We’re currently testing it with the full fleet of LIMOs. That’s something we would have believed impossible with larger robots for logistical reasons.”

Though the focus is firmly on space, the Polytechnique Montréal research has applications on earth. Swarms of robots could aid in disaster response, Search & Rescue, and more.

 

FAVOURITE ROBOT

 

The LIMO isn’t the only AgileX product in Polytechnique’s stable. And while Beltram likes all of them, he has a soft spot for one in particular.

“I would say that my favorite robot is the Scout Mini,” he says. “It’s fast, it’s agile and the control is extremely precise.”

In fact, Beltrame often takes the Scout Mini with him when doing school presentations. It’s small enough to be carried in the trunk of his car and hand-carried to classrooms. His team has also used the platform to test a new code for path planning and sophisticated energy calculations. It’s capable of tracking the additional energy required for climbing inclines, for example, then calculating when the robot needs to return home to wirelessly recharge.

As always, InDro works with clients to deliver precisely what they need. This saves time for those institutions and corporations on builds, allowing them to get on with the business of R&D.

“We’ve done quite a bit of integration for them,” says Luke Corbeth, InDro’s Head of R&D Sales.

“For example (see picture below), we provide a top plate with all required hardware mounted and integrated. They then add their own sensors, protective structure, etc. So this is a great example of how we work with clients on a case-by-case basis depending on their needs as robotics isn’t one-size-fits-all.”

Polytechnique mini bunkers

ONE SMALL STEP…

 

With all of this research, what comes next? Will the work being done today at Polytechnique eventually find its way off this planet?

“The answer is it’s going to happen very soon,” says Beltrame. Sometime later this year, a rocket will head toward the moon carrying three small robots. It’s called the Cadre mission.

A trio of small rovers will work as a team to explore the moon autonomously, mapping the subsurface in 3D, collecting distributed measurements, and showing the potential of multirobot missions,” says NASA’s JPL website. One of Beltrame’s students is working on that mission with JPL.

“This is one example of how the work that we’ve been doing in this lab, in the end – through students that were here – become real missions,” says Beltrame.

And that’s not all. As early as 2026, a Canadian-built rover could land on the moon in Canada’s first moon mission.

Its task? To explore the moon’s south polar region in search of “water ice.” This ice is critical to long-term human habitation on the moon – and can also be converted to fuel, both for energy on the moon and potentially to refuel other spacecraft with destinations further afield.

“I have an engineer from the Canadian Space Agency that’s a student of mine that’s developed the Mission Planner. So the idea is that we – our lab – developed the Mission Planner for the Canada rover that’s going to the moon.”

Here’s a look at that planned mission, from the CSA:

 
 
 

AND THERE’S MORE

 

There was some big news this week from Polytechnique Montréal. On January 24 it announced the formation of ASTROLITH, a body for “research in space resource and infrastructure engineering.”

It’s the first Canadian group dedicated to lunar engineering, according to a news release.

Comprising experts from all seven Polytechnique departments, ASTROLITH will pursue the mission of helping to develop next-generation technologies and training the engineers of tomorrow to ensure Canada’s presence in space and lunar exploration, as well as addressing critical needs on our planet within the context of climate change, resource management and sustainable development,” reads the release.

So while the emphasis is on the moon, ASTROLITH will also result in some very practical – and urgent – use-cases on our home planet.

“As encapsulated in its Latin motto Ad Lunam pro Terra, ASTROLITH is dedicated to developing technologies with direct impacts here on Earth: enabling development of infrastructure in the Far North or facilitating the energy transition, for example,” says the release.

“Indeed, the research unit’s founding members are already involved in developing technologies in various areas related to space and extreme environments, from design of resilient habitats and infrastructures for remote regions to deployment of cislunar communications technologies to development of advanced robotics systems for prospecting and mining, among many others. Their work is bolstered by contributions from specialists in life-cycle analysis, sustainable development and space-related policy development.”

The team is composed of academics and researchers that span all seven Polytechnique departments. Beltrame, not surprisingly, is on the team – which is pictured below. (He’s in the back row, centre.)

 

INDRO’S TAKE

 

We find the work being carried out at Polytechnique Montréal, the MIST lab – and now ASTROLITH – both fascinating and important. It’s also a terrific example of how dedicated researchers and students can develop and test projects in the lab that eventually have real-world (and off-world) applications.

“I’m incredibly impressed with the work being carried out here, and the fact it can be put to positive use-cases both on earth and in space,” says InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece.

“We wish Dr. Beltrame and his colleagues well, and we’ll certainly be watching these lunar missions with great interest. It’s always a pleasure when InDro can support teams doing important work like this.”

You can find more about the MIST lab here. And if you’d like to talk about AgileX robots (or any other robotic solution), connect with an InDro expert here

There’s a new robot in town: Meet LIMO

There’s a new robot in town: Meet LIMO

Even in the world of robotics, good things often come in small packages. And this is especially true when it comes to Limo, a new AgileX platform perfect for students and those carrying out R&D work. Limo is small but mighty, with the same kind of technology you’ll find in much larger devices (it weighs but 4.2 kg). The robot runs on the open source Robot Operating System (ROS) software, and comes with both the original ROS1 and ROS2 software libraries. This allows users to customize the robot for different tasks.

It ships with an impressive display of hardware and capabilities right out of the box, including:

  • An NVIDIA Jetson Nano, capable of remote teleoperation over 4G
  • An EAI X2L LiDAR unit
  • Stereo camera

This affordable machine is capable of autonomous missions, including mapping new surroundings via Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM). It also comes with multiple modes for locomotion. You’ll see details of this in the left-hand graphic below. It’s also scalable. Want to add other sensors? There are four USB Serial Ports onboard.

This kind of flexibility in a small package is pretty amazing.

LIMO

How Limo came about

 

We were curious to learn more about Limo, so we contacted AgileX’s Brandy Xue. Until recently, Brandy was leading the company’s Global Sales and Marketing department. In March of 2022, she switched to the new AgileX subsidiary, Mammotion Tech – which focuses on consumer outdoor robots like autonomous lawnmowers.

We started with a simple question. Who would be interested in buying Limo? Would it be primarily students? Researchers? Developers?

Her answer was simple: “Limo is for everybody,” she said. She then went on to explain why.

Many students, particularly in Southeast Asia, are now delving into coding, robotics – and even AI – while in high school. It’s been a trend in South Korea, and is being seen more and more in China. In fact, says Xue, the Chinese government has been encouraging hands-on high-tech training in high school to prepare people for the workforce.

“The policies in China supporting robotics education are growing,” she says. “And in South Korea, students are working on AI and Machine Learning in high school.”

 

Not just students

 

So AgileX knew there was an educational market for a product like this. But it also felt that researchers in the R&D world could also benefit from a robot with full-scale capabilities in an affordable, smaller-scale package. Having everything integrated out of the box saves a lot of groundwork. Plus, many smaller companies don’t have the need (or the budget) for a larger machine.

“If they want to build a robot, they have to buy a robot here, a sensor there, then write the code to make it move. It’s too complicated,” she says.

“And most people don’t know what to buy, or don’t know how to write the code at the beginning. So why don’t we do this to make it easier for the developer to build a robot? It’s a really cost-effective solution.”And so they did. It also didn’t hurt that the company’s CEO, JD Wei, ran the impressive Robomaster division at DJI. Annual Robomaster competitions pit robots built by the best and brightest teams of engineers against one another. DJI has also hired a significant number of engineers through the program, which has grown since its inception to become more global in nature.

If you’re unfamiliar with Robomaster, check out the video below. It’s worth watching, as it also gives you a pretty good idea of the background JD Wei came from:

 

Simulation table

 

Because Limo is capable of autonomous movement, it can be purchased with an optional simulation table. That platform approximates a mini-city, complete with buildings, roads, stop signs, traffic lights – even a liftable gate arm, like you’d see at railroad crossings or when exiting a parking lot.

Limo can detect and act on its surroundings and can be programmed to take different actions depending on the environment. It can even use its onboard LiDAR to create a 3D, Virtual SLAM map of what it “sees” around it.

The complete package is covered in this AgileX video, which also highlights its multi-modal locomotion capabilities.

 

Powerful processor and more…

 

Limo comes equipped with enviable brains. It features the NVIDIA Jetson Nano processor for EDGE computing. The Jetson is a powerful tool for AI development, and NVIDIA’s JetPack SDK offers even more options for deep learning, computer vision and more. It’s also 4G-compatible for remote tele-operation.

InDro’s Head of Robotic solutions, Peter King, is impressed with the package – saying it offers students and developers an affordable solution for R&D and prototyping.

“Limo really fills a void in the marketplace, allowing schools, researchers, and even R&D companies with limited budgets access to a truly powerful and expandable platform,” says King.

Limo is also rugged. The body is metal, and the 4.2 kg device is capable of tackling inclines of 25°. You’ll see the rest of the specs here:

AgileX LIMO

Economical

 

Limo, as you can see, can do a lot on its own. And it’s capable of doing much more in the hands of a skilled developer or a motivated student. Given that this SLAM-capable device comes with a LiDAR unit, stereo camera, the NVIDIA Jetson Nano, and an onboard 7″ touchscreen module, you’d rightly expect it to cost a significant amount.

It doesn’t. The Limo is $2900 US in its base, multi-modal form. The simulation table, which offers a head-start for those interested in autonomous operation in a city-like environment, is available for an additional $1,000 US. If you’re interested in seeing Limo, we’re happy to arrange for a remote demonstration. You can reach us here.

 

 

InDro’s Take

 

We’ve always been impressed with the AgileX products. They’re smartly engineered and very well-constructed. Our Sentinel teleoperated inspection robot is built on the AgileX Bunker platform, capable of operating in even the most unforgiving of environments. In a word: AgileX builds great stuff. And the flexible design of its products means many are destined for even greater things.

That doesn’t surprise us, given CEO JD Wei’s background running DJI’s Robomaster program.

“After he left DJI, he founded AgileX Robotics – and he’s always joking to himself,” laughs Xue. “He used to work in a company whose robots fly in the sky. Now he runs a company whose robots run on the road.”

And, with the Limo, in classrooms and R&D labs as well.

Percepto’s autonomous drone-in-a-box

Percepto’s autonomous drone-in-a-box

By Scott Simmie, InDro Robotics

 

If you’re in the drone industry, you’ve likely heard the phrase: “Drone-in-a-box.” If refers to an autonomous system where a drone nests inside an enclosure for charging and safe harbour – and is regularly dispatched for automated missions. Usually, those missions are pre-programmed and involve inspection, surveillance, or change detection. Manual missions can be carried out when necessary, but the real point is automation.

The idea is that missions are carried out repeatedly, with a human simply monitoring from a remote location. Remotely could mean inside a building on an industrial site where the drone is based. But, because these emerging systems operate using LTE to control the drone and communicate with the software, they can be operated from hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away (providing you have permission to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight and an available LTE network). With missions carried out automatically and on a regular schedule, this makes for vastly more efficient inspections, surveillance, tracking of construction progress, etc.

It beats requiring a pilot on site, and the drone never suffers from fatigue. The advantages for Enterprise clients are immediately apparent: Inspections, surveillance or general monitoring take place like clockwork, with all relevant data stored for easy access and interpretation. But think also of the edge such systems could provide for First Responders: A drone could be automatically dispatched to the location of a 9-1-1 call or critical incident. Video or thermal imagery can be securely live-streamed to decision makers down the line, regardless of where they’re located. The potential of such systems is unlimited.

At InDro Robotics, we’re no strangers to this concept. In fact, we’ve got a few things under the hood in this regard. But we like to acknowledge and celebrate success in this field. And so today’s post will focus on Percepto – the world’s leader in drone-in-a-box solutions. The company has a proven system, currently deployed in more than 100 locations around the globe. We recently had an opportunity to see a demo of the Percepto system, hosted by Canadian distributors RMUS (Rocky Mountain Unmanned Solutions).

Percepto’s autonomous drone system

The Percepto website outlines its offering with this statement: “Changing the way visual data is collected and analyzed, Percepto AIM is the only end-to-end inspection and monitoring software solution that fully automates visual data workflows, from capture to insights.” AIM stands for Autonomous Inspection and Monitoring, and is the software integral to the overall package.

This Percepto video provides a good overview:

It’s one thing to see a company video, quite something else to see that system in person. We were part of a briefing with Percepto’s Ehud Ollech (Head of Business Development) and Shykeh Gordon (VP Global Sales). They demonstrated the AIM software, the Sparrow drone (which comes with a parachute), and much more.

But they started by explaining that this system is purpose-built for major industrial customers, with clients from the mining, solar, oil & gas/petrochemical and utilities sector. And, they said, don’t think of Percepto as a drone company.

“Basically we are a big data analytics company,” said Shykeh, “offering end-to-end inspection and monitoring solutions.” What kind of solutions? This corporate graphic, supplied by Percepto’s marketing department, helps explain:

Percepto Drone

Percepto’s AIM software

During the demonstration, Shykeh and and Ehud walked us through the AIM (Autonomous site Inspection and Monitoring) software. It’s a browser-based system that allows you to program missions, monitor flights in real-time, watch a live stream from the Sparrow drone’s RGB or thermal camera, and take a deep dive into meaningful data. The User Interface is simple, and Percepto says a mission can be planned in as little as three minutes. In fact, they flew a brief mission from indoors with visitors watching from a conference room and visual observers outside. Every aspect of the mission, including a live video feed, was delivered in real-time. We could monitor what the drone was seeing, which is part of the point. And Ehud had the option, if something caught his eye, of stopping for a closer look.

RGB and thermal data is continuously captured during missions, then uploaded to the AWS cloud when the drone comes home to roost. Significantly, the AIM software is capable of change detection – a major feature for many clients. Once a baseline capture of a designated area has been stored in the Cloud, if a subsequent mission detects any changes, anomalies will be flagged. These could include thermal changes, issues with solar panels, oil leaks, a broken window – the list goes on. (The thermal data is radiometric, meaning it provides the actual temperatures measured.) The AI does not always categorize the type of anomaly, but even when it doesn’t it will quickly point out the relevant images for the operator to take a closer look. Percepto can also be integrated with Smart Fences or Pan-Tilt-Zoom cameras and dispatched automatically if something seem amiss.

Percepto Autonomous Drone

“The heart of our system is our software,” says Ehud.

AIM can also integrate data from ground-based robots, such as Boston Dynamics’ Spot. Even a smartphone photo or other image can be added to the mix, providing it contains geolocation data. The system can produce 3D digital twins, with all photogrammetry stitching done in the Cloud by AIM. (Some solutions for automated data capture rely on third-party software for photogrammetry.)  As part of the demonstration, Ehud defined an area of a pile of earth; a volumetric calculation was instantly performed. And this was all while the group was comfortable indoors. We were probably 50 metres from the actual system, but we could have just as easily have been across the planet, assuming LTE connection at the drone end.

Seeing the Percepto drone in a box in action

Percepto Autonomous Drone

After the first mission was complete, we went outside to watch the system in person. It began with the clamshell housing – which Percepto says can withstand a Category 5 hurricane, closed. Once the mission was initiated, it opened up quickly and the Sparrow took off. The system is operational in winds up to 40 kph, with a takeoff/landing limit of 27 kph. Winds during the demo were 24 kph; the Sparrow was rock steady.

Percepto Autonomous Drone

The system does not have obstacle avoidance, but uses ground-based radar to avoid conflicts with crewed aircraft. Altitude parameters, obviously, are programmed when setting the mission.

“Everyone’s waiting for aerial radar to get cheaper and lighter,” said Shykeh.

More sensors to come

The company already is working on a gas detection sensor (aka OGI camera), and is looking at potential LiDAR sensors as well. Maximum flight time is 40 minutes under optimal conditions, but generally flights are limited to 30 minutes. The next generation battery will offer a 20-30 per cent increase in time and range, and charging time in the station – from zero to full – is about 40 minutes.

Percepto Drone

InDro’s view

This is a refined and mature system, well-suited for major corporations with the budget for this kind of data acquisition and interpretation. It’s particularly suited for remote sites – especially sites that do not have staff on site but require persistent monitoring for safety, security or other reasons. Percepto has some very high-profile clients on its roster, including FPL, Koch, Verizon and Enel.

We’re strong supporters of drone-in-a-box solutions – and are actively exploring systems that might be helpful to First Responders. Kudos to Percepto…and stay tuned.