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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.)
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.”