Robotics

On the way to the moon: The Karlsruhe FZI robotics team wins an international ESA competition

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The team around the FZI Research Center for Information Technology from Baden-Württemberg has won the ESA-ESRIC Space Resources Challenge. The prize: 500,000 euros for research – and the prospect of a real mission to the moon. A small step for research, but a big leap for FZI Karlsruhe and its consortium partners.

Image: FZI

Karlsruhe, 20.04.2023 – The European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Innovation Center for Space Resources (ESRIC) have announced the winner of their latest international robotics competition, the ESA-ESRIC Space Resources Challenge. The aim of the competition is to find innovative approaches and solutions for finding and extracting resources on the moon. The winner of the competition was the ARISE consortium led by FZI – an association of robotics, geology and aerospace experts from the FZI Research Center for Information Technology in Karlsruhe, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, University of Zurich, University of Basel and University of Bern. As the winner, the consortium will receive €500,000 for further research and the prospect of being part of a real ESA-ESRIC lunar mission. Winners will be announced on 19 April 2023 in Luxembourg as part of Space Resources Week. “We are very proud of our talented scientists. All the time and effort they put into this challenge is now being rewarded with this great prize,” said FZI director Jan Wiesenberger with joy.

Image: FZI

Innovative solutions for space exploration

The ESA-ESRIC Space Resources Challenge is a competition to find innovative solutions to explore resources on the lunar surface. The multi-stage competition includes various challenges, some of which are unknown, which must be completed remotely using a moving robot, such as later on the moon.

The time-delayed and sometimes unstable communication link between Mission Control and robots is particularly challenging: a simulation limitation that will also exist when bridging the nearly 384,000 kilometers between Earth and the moon. Otherwise there is no visual contact or access to robotic systems.

The team was tasked with independently exploring, mapping and navigating a previously unknown lunar landscape with a mobile robot. Robots should localize potential resources and examine them more closely.

Initially, 12 teams took part in the competition

Originally, twelve teams competed against each other in the first phase of the competition during field trials in a lunar-like environment in the Netherlands. Based on the skills demonstrated there, five teams were selected to compete again in the final: FZI Research Center for Information Technology, ETH Zurich with the University of Zurich, Lukasiewicz – PIAP, Mission Control Space Services and Space Application Services, a research network of Université Du Luxembourg, Dynamic Imaging Analysis, La Palma Research Center, Université de Lorraine, and The Open University.

Image: FZI

In the finals, FZI faced the challenge with a team of three mobile robots: two walking robots Spot and ANYmal and a four-wheeled robot Husky with an instrumented robotic arm. A unique selling point is the software developed by FZI, which allows the trio to carry out tasks largely independently and cooperatively as a team. The three robots cleverly divide their own tasks depending on their skills. The two walking robots quickly explored the entire terrain and created interesting targets for Husky’s detailed resource analysis. The Husky can then use the on-board equipment to perform X-ray fluorescence analysis as well as detailed close-up photography. “My personal highlight is that I can take a lot of time for questions from the judges during our competition because, as planned, our robot does not require any input from us, but can act independently,” said Tristan Schnell, project manager for the FZI team. .

In the final step into space, after field trials, participants must submit proposals to the ESA to further improve space suitability. Based on field tests and proposals, a consortium led by FZI was selected as the winner. “I am pleased that we were able to develop this exciting concept together with our robotics partners from ETH Zurich and other Swiss partners, in which teams of autonomous walking robots play a central role. I’m even happier that we now have the opportunity to work together on bringing this technology a little closer to the moon!” said the head of the department, Dr. -Ing. Arne Ronnau.

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