University of Western Ontario: International collaboration advances drones as next big step in planetary exploration


While Hollywood loves pitting iconic characters against one another in a summer blockbuster, even those fighting the same good fight, that’s not the case for planetary scientists exploring the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Earth sciences professor Catherine Neish led a team of Western students to Iceland for two weeks this summer (July 10 to August 10) to collaborate with scientists and engineers from NASA, the University of Arizona, Honeybee Robotics, MDA, and Reykjavik University on the RAVEN (Rover–Aerial Vehicle Exploration Network) field study to test the many benefits of deploying drones and rovers together, as a superhero-style team-up, to advance autonomous exploration for future space missions.

“Drone technology is the next big step in planetary exploration. It allows us to reach areas we would never be able to get to on the ground faster, and more efficiently,” said Neish.

An expert in astrobiology and impact cratering, Neish uses new technologies, including radar, lidar (light detection and ranging), rovers and drones, for studying the geology of planetary surfaces

“If you use a rover and a drone together, you can maximize the area that you’re able to cover. Drones can access areas that rovers cannot. But drones are so small you can’t carry very much equipment or instrumentation on them, so you need rovers too,” said Neish, also a faculty member of the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space).

“With drones and rovers together, you really do maximize your science return rather than using either one of them alone,” said Neish.

At the Holuhraun lava flow in central Iceland, Neish and her international collaborators from academia, government, and industry field-tested the RAVEN Claw – a protype drone, developed by Honeybee Robotics, which is fully equipped with an adaptable sample acquisition device and its own sensor payload for measuring everything from land formation to atmospheric chemistry. The team also worked with the Mars Exploration Science Rover (MERS) from the Canadian Space Agency, and drones from the University of Arizona.

“Iceland is an excellent Mars analogue. It’s cold with ice like we see on Mars and it’s also very dry. It has fresh lava flows that are covered by sand. Honestly, it’s one of the best Mars analogues I’ve ever seen. It has all the same geologic processes we see on Mars,” said Neish.

Western Space postdoctoral researcher Gavin Tolometti joined Neish in Iceland and served as project manager. Tolometti worked on the rover team with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineer and Western alumnus Raymond Francis and MDA engineer Chris Langley along with Western graduate student Jamie Graff, who operated the LIBS (laser induced breakdown spectroscopy) instrument to get chemical composition for the rover.

Graduate students Jahnavi Shah and Elisa Dong worked on drone operations and drone implementation, respectively.

Neish primarily studied sand ramps that have built up on the edge of the Holuhraun lava flow over the past seven years since it was formed, while graduate student Reid Perkins operated a backpack lidar system to get precise topography data and investigate the subsurface structure with GPR (ground-penetrating radar). Western alumna and current JPL postdoctoral researcher Shannon Hibbard also joined in this work.

This summer, the RAVEN team operated the drone and the rover separately, as the researchers wanted to assess science output for two autonomous operations. Next year, Neish and her collaborators plan to return to Iceland to incorporate drones and rovers into one operational strategy.

“We’re really excited to look at the results from this summer and learn more about how sand can obscure lava flows on Earth and Mars,” said Neish. “Next year, we’ll have the rover directing the drone, and using the two in tandem, and then we’ll compare the data from this summer to see which approach works best.”

Neish says the RAVEN field study in Iceland, and next year’s planned return, are very important because NASA just announced that the samples the Perseverance rover is retrieving will be collected by a drone to get them safely on the spacecraft, before eventually being returned to Earth.

“We need some way for the drones to pick up the samples and so Honeybee, with our input, is looking into different technologies for extracting samples from a drone, which is something that’s never been done before,” said Neish. “It’s very exciting and a great opportunity for our students.”

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