Even as the Mars Exploration Rover is producing breathtaking results during its current operation on Mars, Israeli researchers are pushing the envelope and planning for the next level of unmanned missions.
The current Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity act as robot geologists while they are on the surface of Mars, and are controlled from the NASA mission control via remote control. At the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, a research team is in the midst of a project to build a new self-navigating space vehicle to roam the surface of Mars.
According to Professor Zvi Shiller, the head of CJS’s department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechatronics and an expert in the field of robotics and mechanical engineering who is leading the project, “NASA’s current robot is operated under constant supervision from the mission flight control group. We are working on a robot that will not need such close supervision while navigating on Mars.”
Funded by the Israel Space Agency, the three-year program is intended to develop algorithms for autonomous navigation and motion planning for planetary rovers on future surface missions to Mars and other planets.
The project will combine techniques of global motion planning, sensor-based motion planning, 3D map building and vision-based localization to produce multi-scale navigation plans that ensure rover safety and optimize mission tasks. Several aspects of the proposed planner are unique: it is based on analytical models of the vehicle and terrain; it is globally optimal over the specified criteria; and it easily scales to any planning range.
Formerly a leading researcher in the field of robotics at UCLA, Shiller specializes in movement design for autonomous robots, and has developed an advanced navigation algorithm for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory – the NASA body in charge of robotic exploration of the solar system.
“I’ve been involved with the field of motion planning for years,” Shiller told ISRAEL21c. “When I studied at MIT, I focused on robotics – more specifically motion planning. At that time the focus was on industrial robots – these are robots that are fixed to the ground and move one arm around. Soon after I graduated, I joined the faculty of UCLA, and I applied my techniques to mobile robots.”
“The challenge is when you plan a path or trajectory, you want to avoid obstacles. The common knowledge back then was that all you’re concerned with is binary obstacles – either something is an obstacle or it isn’t. In an office environment, you simply circumvent the chairs and desk. The problem with mobile planning is more complicated. There are obstacles just as well, but there are also mountains, slopes and hills and rocks. I coined the term ‘obstacle traversal’ – which basically means avoid the obstacle if you can, or go over it if you have to. It changed and enhanced the notion of motion planning,” Shiller explained.
Shiller’s connection to NASA began in 1998 when he offered to continue his research on motion planning for the JPL. An early version of the physics-based global planner being used in his current research was developed under a contract with JPL. Also assisting in the project is Dr. Shraga Shoval, Chairman of the College’s Industrial Engineering Dept., Prof. Elon Rimon of the Mechanical Engineering Dept. at the Technion and Dr. Ilan Shimshoni of the Technion’s Industrial Engineering Dept.
While Shiller no longer has a formal connection with NASA, and the U.S. space agency is not actively involved in the CJS project, he hopes that NASA will incorporate the finished CJS product into its planned future robotic mission to Mars.
“What we’re doing is developing something that’s quite unique in the field,” he said.
When in 2001, Shiller decided to return to Israel after serving fourteen years on the faculty of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UCLA where he lead the teaching and research activities in Robotics and directed the Laboratory for Robotics and Automation, he presented his plan to the Israel Space Agency.
“One of the ISA goals is to strengthen scientific relations and research endeavors with foreign colleagues,” said Shiller, ” and this project is in line with the ISA goals.”
According to Science Minister, Eliezer Sandberg, “This project is part of our concentrated efforts to locate technological spheres in which Israel could perform research that would further enhance its reputation and international status. My goal is for Israel to join industrial space projects and be part of American and European space plans.”
The Director of the Judea and Samaria College, former Minister of Finance Yigal Cohen-Orgad, said, “We are interested in developing enterprises that would, in the long run, contribute to Israel’s esteem and economy.”
Shiller is pleased that the project is advancing at a reasonable pace.
“The time frame is three years – we’ve finished the first year, and need to deliver a product in two more – a software program that will actually do the motion planning at any level and fuse them with existing global maps. And we promised to demonstrate this on a real vehicle, so we’re developing one – our version of the Mars rover.”
And thanks to Shiller’s decision to return to Israel, it will be an Israeli Mars Rover. After so many years working and teaching at the pinnacle of American academia, he said he has no regrets over his decision to return.
“I came back for both personal and professional reasons. I preferred to be a big fish in a smaller pond here. In Israel, I can make more of a difference.”
Shiller emphasized that he decided to join the faculty of the CJS because of its high academic standards and focus on research.
“After spending so many years at UCLA, I wasn’t going to go anywhere that didn’t have an emphasis on research. What also drew me to CJS was the opportunity to establish a new department – the Department of Mechanical Engineering – Mechatronics. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to shape a department with your vision,” he said.
“This is the first department in Israel with this emphasis. I see this as a means to educate the next generation of engineers to engage in this field. The last technical revolution was in software and computers. The next one will include hardware, and we’re providing the resource for future engineers to fuel the next technical revolution.”