This Is the Most Powerful Robot Arm Ever Installed on a Mars Rover

How NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed the robot arm for the Mars 2020 rover

How NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed the robot arm for the Mars 2020 rover
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Mars 2020 rover features a 2.1-meter-long robot arm designed to be able to do much more complex science than in previous missions, including drilling into rocks to collect samples that can be stored for later recovery.
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Last month, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrapped up the installation of the Mars 2020 rover’s 2.1-meter-long robot arm. This is the most powerful arm ever installed on a Mars rover. Even though the Mars 2020 rover shares much of its design with Curiosity, the new arm was redesigned to be able to do much more complex science, drilling into rocks to collect samples that can be stored for later recovery.

JPL is well known for developing robots that do amazing work in incredibly distant and hostile environments. The Opportunity Mars rover, to name just one example, had a 90-day planned mission but remained operational for 5,498 days in a robot unfriendly place full of dust and wild temperature swings where even the most basic maintenance or repair is utterly impossible. (Its twin rover, Spirit, operated for 2,269 days.) 

To learn more about the process behind designing robotic systems that are capable of feats like these, we talked with Matt Robinson, one of the engineers who designed the Mars 2020 rover’s new robot arm.

The Mars 2020 rover (which will be officially named through a public contest which opens this fall) is scheduled to launch in July of 2020, landing in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. The overall design is similar to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, named Curiosity, which has been exploring Gale Crater on Mars since August 2012, except Mars 2020 will be a bit bigger and capable of doing even more amazing science. It will outweigh Curiosity by about 150 kilograms, but it’s otherwise about the same size, and uses the same type of radioisotope thermoelectric generator for power. Upgraded aluminum wheels will be more durable than Curiosity’s wheels, which have suffered significant wear. Mars 2020 will land on Mars in the same way that Curiosity did, with a mildly insane descent to the surface from a rocket-powered hovering “skycrane.”

Mars 2020 really steps it up when it comes to science. The most interesting new capability (besides serving as the base station for a highly experimental autonomous helicopter) is that the rover will be able to take surface samples of rock and soil, put them into tubes, seal the tubes up, and then cache the tubes on the surface for later retrieval (and potentially return to Earth for analysis). Collecting the samples is the job of a drill on the end of the robot arm that can be equipped with a variety of interchangeable bits, but the arm holds a number of other instruments as well. A “turret” can swap between the drill, a mineral identification sensor suite called SHERLOC, and an X-ray spectrometer and camera called PIXL. Fundamentally, most of Mars 2020’s science work is going to depend on the arm and the hardware that it carries, both in terms of close-up surface investigations and collecting samples for caching.

Matt Robinson is the Deputy Delivery Manager for the Sample Caching System on the Mars 2020 rover, which covers the robotic arm itself, the drill at the end of the arm, and the sample caching system within the body of the rover that manages the samples. Robinson has been at JPL since 2001, and he’s worked on the Mars Phoenix Lander mission as the robotic arm flight software developer and robotic arm test and operations engineer, as well as on Curiosity as the robotic arm test and operations lead engineer.

We spoke with Robinson about how the Mars 2020 arm was designed, and what it’s like to be building robots for exploring other planets.

IEEE Spectrum: How’d you end up working on robots at JPL?

Matt Robinson: When I was a grad student, my focus was on vision-based robotics research, so the kinds of things they do at JPL, or that we do at JPL now, were right within my wheelhouse. One of my advisors in grad school had a former student who was out here at JPL, so that’s how I made the contact. But I was very excited to come to JPL—as a young grad student working in robotics, space robotics was where it’s at.

For a robotics engineer, working in space is kind of the gold standard. You’re working in a challenging environment and you have to be prepared for any time of eventuality that may occur. And when you send your robot out to space, there’s no getting it back.

Once the rover arrives on Mars and you receive pictures back from it operating, there’s no greater feeling. You’ve built something that is now working 200+ million miles away. It’s an awesome experience! I have to pinch myself sometimes with the job I do. Working at JPL on space robotics is the holy grail for a roboticist.

What’s different about designing an arm for a rover that will operate on Mars?

We spent over five years designing, manufacturing, assembling, and testing the arm. Scientists have defined the high-level goals for what the mission has to do—acquire core samples and process them for return, carry science instruments on the arm to help determine what rocks to sample, and so on. We, as engineers, define the next level of requirements that support those goals.

When you’re building a robotic arm for another planet, you want to design something that is robust to the environment as well as robust from fault-protection standpoint. On Mars, we’re talking about an environment where the temperature can vary 100 degrees Celsius over the course of the day, so it’s very challenging thermally. With force sensing for instance, that’s a major problem. Force sensors aren’t typically designed to operate or even survive in temperature ranges that we’re talking about. So a lot of effort has to go into force sensor design and testing.

And then there’s a do-no-harm aspect—you’re sending this piece of hardware 200 million miles away, and you can’t get it back, so you want to make sure your hardware and software are robust and cannot do any harm to the system. It’s definitely a change in mindset from a terrestrial robot, where if you make a mistake, you can repair it.

How do you decide how much redundancy is enough?

That’s always a big question. It comes down to a couple of things, typically: mass and volume. You have a certain amount of mass that’s allocated to the robotic arm and we have a volume that it has to fit within, so those are often the drivers of the amount of redundancy that you can fit. We also have a lot of experience with sending arms to other planets, and at the beginning of projects, we establish a number of requirements that the design has to meet, and that’s where the redundancy is captured.

How much is the design of the arm driven by this need for redundancy, as opposed to trying to pack in all of the instrumentation that you want to have on there to do as much science as possible?

The requirements were driven by a couple of things. We knew roughly how big the instruments on the end of the arm were going to be, so the arm design is partially driven by that, because as the instruments get bigger and heavier, the arm has to get bigger and stronger. We have our coring drill at the end of the arm, and coring requires a certain level of force, so the arm has to be strong enough to do that. Those all became requirements that drove the design of the arm. On top of that, there was also that this arm also has to operate within the Martian environment, so you have things like the temperature changes and thermal expansion—you have to design for that as well. It’s a combination of both, really.

You were a test engineer for the arm used on the MSL rover. What did you learn from Spirit and Opportunity that informed the design of the arm on Curiosity?

Spirit and Opportunity did not have any force-sensing on the robotic arm. We had contact sensors that were good enough. Spirit and Opportunity’s arms were used to place instruments, that’s all it had to do, primarily. When you’re talking about actually acquiring samples, it’s not a matter of just placing the tool—you also have to apply forces to the environment. And once you start doing that, you really need a force sensor to protect you, and also to determine how much load to apply. So that was a big theme, a big difference between MSL and Spirit and Opportunity. 

The size grew a lot too. If you look at Spirit and Opportunity, they’re the size of a riding lawnmower. Curiosity and the Mars 2020 rovers are the size of a small car. The Spirit and Opportunity arm was under a meter long, and the 2020 arm is twice that, and it has to apply forces that are much higher than the Spirit and Opportunity arm. From Curiosity to 2020, the payload of the arm grew by 50 percent, but the mass of the arm did not grow a whole lot, because our mass budget was kind of tight. We had to design an arm that was stronger, that had more capability, without adding more mass. That was a big challenge. We were fairly efficient on Curiosity, but on 2020, we sharpened the pencil even more.

MSL used its arm to drill into rocks like Mars 2020 will—how has the experience of operating MSL on Mars changed your thinking on how to make that work?

On MSL, the force sensor was used primarily for fault protection, just to protect the arm from being overloaded. [When drilling] we used a stiffness model of the arm to apply the force. The force sensor was only used in case you overloaded, and that’s very different from doing active force control, where you’re actually using the force sensor in a control loop.

On Mars 2020, we’re taking it to the next step, using the force sensor to actually actively control the level of force, both for pushing on the ground and for doing bit exchange. That’s a key point because fault protection to prevent damage usually has larger error bars. When you’re trying to actually push on the environment to apply force, and you’re doing active force control, the force sensor has to be significantly more accurate.

So a big thing that we learned on MSL—it was the first time we’d actually flown a force sensor, and we learned a lot about how to design and test force sensors to be used on the surface of Mars.

How do you effectively test the Mars 2020 arm on Earth?

That’s a good question. The arm was designed to operate on either Earth or Mars. It’s strong enough to do both. We also have a stiffness model of the arm which includes allows us to compensate for differences in gravity. For testing, we make two copies of the robotic arm. We have our copy that we’re going to fly to Mars, which is what we call our flight model, and we have our engineering model. They’re effectively duplicates of each other. The engineering arm stays on earth, so even once we’ve sent the flight model to Mars, we can continue to test. And if something were to happen, if say a drill bit got stuck in the ground on Mars, we could try to replicate those conditions on Earth with our engineering model arm, and use that to test out different scenarios to overcome the problem.

How much autonomy will the arm have?

We have different models of autonomy. We have pretty high levels flight software and, for instance, we have a command that just says "dock," that moves the arm does all the force control to the dock the arm with the carousel. For surface interaction, we have stereo cameras on the rover, and those cameras allow us to generate 3D terrain models. Using those 3D terrain models, scientists can select a target on that surface, and then we can position the arm on the target. 

Scientists like to select the particular sample targets, because they have very specific types of rocks they’re looking for to sample from. On 2020, we’re providing the ability for the next level of autonomy for the rover to drive up to an area and at least do the initial surveying of that area, so the scientists can select the specific target. So the way that that would happen is, if there’s an area off in the distance that the scientists find potentially interesting, the rover will autonomously drive up to it, and deploy the arm and take all the pictures so that we can generate those 3D terrain models and then the next day the scientists can pick the specific target they want. It’s really cool.

JPL is famous for making robots that operate for far longer than NASA necessarily plans for. What’s it like designing hardware and software for a system that will (hopefully) become part of that legacy?

The way that I look at it is, when you’re building an arm that’s going to go to another planet, all the things that could go wrong… You have to build something that’s robust and that can survive all that. It’s not that we’re trying to overdesign arms so that they’ll end up lasting much, much longer, it’s that, given all the things that you can encounter within a fairly unknown environment, and the level of robustness of the design you have to apply, it just so happens we end up with designs that end up lasting a lot longer than they do. Which is great, but we’re not held to that, although we’re very excited when we see them last that long. Without any calibration, without any maintenance, exactly, it’s amazing. They show their wear over time, but they still operate, it’s super exciting, it’s very inspirational to see.

[ Mars 2020 Rover ]

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