The year is 2035. You wake up and push a button that opens the blinds on your bedroom window, revealing a spectacular view of Earth. It’s another “morning” on the moon when you start your day in one of the human colonies on the lunar surface. However, when you get out of bed, you will hear it: the familiar whirring sounds of actuators and the tapping of toes as your robotic dog approaches you. They pet the pooch before the two of you embark on another day of moon exploration.
This might seem like a fever dream brought on by a few too many episodes of The Jetsons — but it could actually become a reality in the future. In fact, two teams are currently engaged in a heated competition to create a working prototype lunar rover that resembles a robotic dog.
Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) and the University of Zurich and the Research Center for Information Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany (FZI) submitted both robotic dog designs to ESA’s Lunar Polar Challenge, a competition for European and Canadian engineering teams to develop lunar rovers , capable of exploring and exploring valuable resources such as ice in harsh and inhospitable areas of the moon such as the moon’s south pole.
Five of the original 13 teams completed the first challenge of navigating and mapping a simulated lunar environment, allowing them to move on to the next phase of the competition. The winner will receive a whopping cash prize along with resources to potentially see their rover design reach the moon.
The robo-dog of ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich is called Geological Lunar In-Situ Mapper and Prospector for Surface Exploration (GLIMPSE). The team behind it boasts that its pooch can move semi-autonomously across the lunar surface and is equipped with an array of sensors that allow it to detect and identify various minerals on the moon.
“Walking machines offer advantages over wheel-based systems when it comes to rocky terrain, steep slopes or a combination of both,” Hendrik Kolvenbach, an engineer at ETH Zurich’s Robotic Systems Lab and scientific lead of the GLIMPSE project, told The Daily Beast in a E-mail. “[Our university is] one of the pioneers of legged locomotion, and we ultimately want to work towards a system that can be deployed in space to enable scientific discovery in areas where wheeled rovers cannot reach.”
The goal of the competition is to develop a rover capable of exploring the South Pole of the moon, a region of the moon believed to be rich in potentially valuable resources for future colonies, such as Ice to be used as water. Kolvenbach said GLIMPSE is designed to “provide a 3D map and identify and measure resources” in lunar surface terrain simulated by ESA as part of the competition.
The ETH robot is also semi-autonomous, allowing it to navigate the lunar surface based on waypoints provided by operators on Terra Firma. This is helpful because the communication delay between Earth and Moon is a few seconds, which hampers real-time remote controls. It also comes in handy when the robo-dog explores the uncharted territory of the lunar pole in search of water ice – regarded by many as the “holy grail” on the moon, including field robotics expert and pioneer William “Red” Whittaker.
While not involved in the ESA competition, he is part of two Carnegie Mellon University efforts to put rovers on the moon to explore the South Pole: the lunar rover Iris and the MoonRanger. Whittaker told The Daily Beast that because the region is rich in ice, it could be a valuable place to mine the resource to provide lunar colonies with drinking water, fuel for sustainable space travel and even breathing oxygen for lunar inhabitants. That’s why it’s so important that we begin exploring the area now before we begin the colonization efforts.
Whittaker said he doesn’t doubt the ETH Zurich team’s ability to build a good robot, but he does is somewhat skeptical of robo-dog design for lunar exploration purposes. That’s partly because Where was the location of the ESA Challenge: a former aircraft hangar with boulders and rocks scattered to ostensibly simulate the moon’s environment. For Whittaker, this place is a really shoddy simulation of the lunar surface.
“[The course] depicts an artificial lunar landscape that is unrealistic,” Whittaker told The Daily Beast. “If you look at the lunar robot in relation to the size of the rocks that the competition puts in front of them, it’s not at all the same rock distribution on the moon or Mars.”
Whittaker added that while GLIMPSE’s four-legged design could be useful for moving through rocky terrain like that in the ESA Challenge, the reality is that a canine-like bot will face a much different environment on the moon , where the soil is known to be much more loamy and sticky rather than rocky. “If you look at the surface of the moon, you would never see terrain that looks like this,” he said.
He is also suspicious of the effectiveness of the quadrupedal design when moving through lunar soil. If not designed properly, it can easily get stuck in terrain. For this reason, according to Whittaker, lunar rovers are designed to have low ground pressure. However, he concedes that “the moon’s gravity can be very forgiving in this regard.”
In honor of the GLIMPSE team, Kolvenbach said that the rover’s design actually allows it to better navigate places that wheeled rovers typically can’t reach, like “craters with steep slopes, boulder fields, cracks or even caves,” adding that the robotic dog would not completely replace wheeled rovers, but rather complement them.
In addition, the team believes its AI and semi-autonomous capabilities will allow it to have “packs” of multiple robotic dogs on the lunar surface to better coordinate lunar survey efforts. They hope to try this out in the next round of the ESA Challenge, as Kolvenbach says they have the option of “having a team of multiple robots do the exploration.”
“A team approach increases the amount of data we can create in a short amount of time, but also provides redundancy,” he said. “If a system fails, we have some backup options.”
So yes, you read that right. There is a real possibility that future lunar colonies could have roaming packs of robotic dogs.
Of course, we are still a long way from this reality. The team is working to tweak and streamline the design of GLIMPSE ahead of the finals later this year. If they win, there is a chance that we will see ETH Zurich’s robo-dog on the moon “sometime in the next decade”, according to a press release from the university. Though robotic experts are a bit skeptical about rovers, maybe one day we’ll have robo-dogs on the moon helping their human companions retrieve valuable resources — along with the occasional stick or tennis ball.