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CMU's Zoe Robot Resumes Search for Life on Earth

If Zoe can find life in the Atacama Desert, she might be able to find life on Mars, too

2 min read
CMU's Zoe Robot Resumes Search for Life on Earth

Earth. Is there any life here? Nobody knows for sure, although Carl Sagan used the Galileo spacecraft to make an educated guess of "yes" back in 1993. Finding life on planets is a tricky business, as evidenced by the fact that we've so far completely struck out everywhere except our own backyard. It's going to take some practice to figure out where and how to look, which is why a robot named Zoë is heading back to the Atacama Desert in Chile.

The Atacama Desert is a brutal place. It's mostly waterless, and so high up in elevation that the air is thin and solar radiation is significantly higher than normal. Not much lives there: about the only things that can survive are microorganisms, and even they have to hide beneath the surface. This is about as close as we can get to an analog to a planet like Mars, and it's Zoë's job to test out instruments and techniques that could lead to the discovery of life on the red planet.

Field investigation over three years will use a rover to make transects of the Atacama with instruments to detect subsurface microorganisms and chlorophyll-based life forms and to characterize habitats. The rover will integrate panoramic imagers, microscopic imagers, spectrometers, as well as mechanisms for subsurface access.Robotic considerations in addition to instrument integration include platform configuration, planetary-relevant localization, complex obstacle negotiation, over-the-horizon navigation, and power-cognizant activity planning. An architecture that coordinates these capabilities, provides health monitoring and fault recovery, and allows for variability in the degree of autonomy is vital to long-duration operations.

The measurement and exploration technique produced by this investigation combines long traverses, sampling measurements on a regional scale, and detailed measurements of individual targets. When compared to the state of the art in robotic planetary exploration, our approach will result in dramatic increase in the number of measurements made and data collected by rover instruments per command cycle. This result will translate into substantial productivity increases for future planetary exploration missions.

Previous studies focused on finding life on the surface, but especially on Mars, the subsurface is where it's at. Zoë, created by a team led by Dr. David Wettergreen from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, might not look as fancy as, say, the Curiosity rover, but it's packing a bunch of science under its solar panel hood, and this time around, there's a fancy new piece of hardware. It's got a drill, baby, a drill!

The drill comes from Honeybee Robotics, and samples that it retrieves will be analyzed by the Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer, an early candidate for the 2020 Mars mission (this one). Zoë started her mission this week, and should take one or two drill samples every day. She's got 50 kilometers to cover autonomously in two weeks, and you can keep up with her progress at the website below.

[ Life in the Atacama ] via [ SETI ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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