SpaceBok, an antelope robot to study Mars – sciences et Avenir

Two years ago, a team of students from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETZH, Switzerland) tested a quadruped robot intended to walk on the Moon at a technical center of the European Space Agency. Designed on the model of a gazelle, a jumping antelope from southern Africa, this spacecraft is being retrofitted to study Mars.

Called SpaceBok and weighing 22 kg, the robot’s ambition is not to replace rovers on wheels, but to complement the latter by going where they cannot go: mountainous areas, steep slopes, tunnels … why the original jumping robot concept , mounted on springs, has been revised. This locomotion system lent itself well to the fairly flat terrain of the Moon, but not to the planet Mars.

The new SpaceBok version is featured in a pre-published article for Field Robotics magazine. The robot no longer jumps at all. It walks in a classic way, in contact with the ground, without ever having more than one leg raised. The “Martian dogs” robots were introduced in January 2021, developed from Boston Dynamics machines, for similar problems of exploring areas inaccessible to rovers. But the ETZH project shows that if these machines open up prospects, they also pose a great technical challenge.

Crampons on the feet

In fact, the stake is at the level of the robot’s feet. The ETZH robotic systems laboratory team tested various solutions. Either the four legs end in a kind of crescent point, or they rest on various versions of a disc-shaped base. In the latter case, the face of the discs in contact with the ground can be smooth or provided with blocks of different lengths.

The researchers carried out extensive tests at the Swiss aerospace manufacturer RUAG in Zurich on a 6-by-6-meter platform that contained a sandy pseudo-soil from Mars. SpaceBok had to progress there in various configurations. Flat terrain, going up and down a slope of 5 to 25%, walking up the slope, perpendicular or diagonally. The terrain has even become more difficult with the addition of semi-settled stones, as seen at the end of the video below.

First observation: the crescent-shaped feet sink much deeper into the ground than the feet on flat discs, slowing the robot’s progress. But the performance between the two designs is reversed when it comes to making the SpaceBok climb a 25% slope. In fact, the front legs cause a mini sand avalanche that will pile up on the rear leg discs. These suddenly get heavier and struggle to get up. The SpaceBok has a tendency to slide.

The crescent-shaped feet, on the other hand, are more easily removed from the ground and the machine moves faster. On the other hand, the SpaceBok negotiates the descent more difficult and is more exposed to falls if your feet touch stones. In short: it is difficult to find an ideal solution, unless you find a compromise between the two approaches.

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