The mission to find life on Mars starts in Brislington
David Clensy visits the Bristol space business that is helping to power a new generation of robotic astronauts
IT’S not what you expect to see in a mundane-looking office block in the middle of a Brislington industrial estate. But as I enter a second floor conference room, I am greeted by the sort of individual you would only expect to see in grainy Nasa images from the surface of Mars.
Meet Indie – the Mars rover who settled here in Bristol in favour of the red planet. He’s the star of the show at Scisys – one of Bristol’s little-known industrial gems, which gives the city an unlikely foot in the space race.
Founded in the early 1980s, originally as Science Systems, the company specialises in building software to control autonomous vehicles and robots – whether it’s satellites, Mars rovers, the more down to Earth, but potentially more lucrative worlds of defence and marine systems, or the increasing automated super-sized quarry dumper trucks.
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The company really made its name for its work on the ill-fated Beagle 2 Mars lander mission. But when the project failed, and Professor Colin Pillinger’s team lost contact with the spacecraft back in 2003, Scisys decided to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat.
“We saw that as an opportunity to build on the work we had put into Beagle 2 to develop a new generation of software that would revolutionise the capabilities of Mars rovers,” explains Dr Mark Woods, head of autonomy and robotics, as he steps away from his robotic assistant – Indie’s prime role is as a test-bed for the company’s latest software tweaks.
“We began to work on ways we could improve the ability of Mars rovers to explore the surface of the planet intelligently. Not to replace the people on the ground at mission control, but in a sense to put them in the driving seat at times when communication with the rover is very limited.”
The company’s target is to win a commission to create the software for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme, which plans to send a rover to Mars in 2017, to explore the surface for signs of life having once existed there.
“The work we have done over the last few years should put us in a very strong position to pitch for the contract once it becomes available later this year,” Mark says.
The work of the SCISYS team differs from other European competitors by focusing on low-cost and low-energy ways to get a rover to navigate for itself and make its own rudimentary decisions about what features of the Martian landscape could be interesting for scientists back home.
“An average Mars rover runs on just 200 watts. When you consider that Nasa’s Curiosity rover that is up there at the moment is roughly the size of a Mini car, you can understand the limitations of having essentially enough energy at your disposal to turn on a light bulb. That’s why these rovers literally creep around on the surface. We have been focusing on ways to maximise the power available, to increase the area that a rover can explore during its valuable time working on the surface of the planet.
“Back in the 1970s, the Moon buggies used by the Apollo 17 crew could travel 20.4km each day, but because of the energy limitations created by the distance of Mars from the Earth, rovers on Mars are only able to achieve a fraction of that – the recent Opportunity rover for instance only travelled 21.4km in three years.”
So Mark’s team set about creating complex software algorithms that would not only increase the intelligence of the rover – so it could maximise its working time on the planet – but also increase the distance it is able to travel with the energy at its disposal.
After some initial test runs in a model of the Mars landscape in a sand pit in the company’s back yard, the team moved on to testing the space rover in the unlikely setting of Weston-super-Mare beach, before travelling with it to the rather more testing landscape of the Atacama desert in Chile last summer.
“The landscape out there was about as close to the Martian landscape as you can find on Earth,” Mark says. “It really was quite an experience for us all, but more importantly, it’s provided us with a wealth of data that we have been able to bring back to Bristol to analyse.”
The rover uses simple £2,000 stereo cameras to photograph the landscape ahead, so it can rapidly create a 3D map of the area it is moving through – allowing it both to avoid obstacles, but also to “look out” for geological features of note.
“The software should revolutionise the rovers’ abilities to work on Mars,” Mark says. “Just a few years ago, one of the Nasa rovers very nearly missed a meteorite that had landed just yards away, which would re-write scientists’ understanding of the Martian atmosphere, simply because it was just outside the area that the scientists on Earth could see in the images being sent back.
“That’s exactly the sort of thing that our software would allow the European rovers to pick up as a matter of course.”