Establishing a permanent lunar base on the moon is a daunting task, requiring massive logistical efforts and significant expenses. To ease the burden of transporting all necessary supplies from Earth, researchers are exploring the possibility of harvesting materials directly on the lunar surface. To accomplish this challenging feat, a team of four-legged robots may become valuable allies.

A recent study published in Science Robotics showcases the work of researchers at Switzerland’s ETH Zurich university, who conducted outdoor excursions with a trio of modified quadruped ANYmal robots. The team tested the robots on various terrains in Switzerland and at the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC) in Luxembourg. Collaborating with the Universities of Basel, Bern, and Zurich, engineers programmed each ANYmal with specific lunar tasks: one was equipped with a microscopy camera and spectrometer to identify rock varieties, while another utilized cameras and a laser scanner to map and classify its surroundings. The third robot demonstrated the ability to identify rocks and map its environment, albeit with slightly less precision than its counterparts.

The use of multiple robots presents two advantages, as doctoral student and researcher Philip Arm explains. Firstly, each robot can specialize in particular tasks and execute them concurrently. Secondly, the redundancy within the team allows the mission to continue even if one of the robots encounters a malfunction or failure during its duties.

The success of the redundancy-focused explorers was evident when they won an ESRIC and ESA Space Resources Challenge. This competition challenged participants to locate and identify minerals scattered across a test area simulating the lunar surface. The team’s victory earned them an additional year of funding to expand the variety and number of robots in their lunar exploration efforts. Future iterations of the exploration team may include both wheeled and flying units. While the robots’ tasks and maneuvers are currently controlled directly by human inputs, researchers are optimistic about eventually upgrading the explorers to operate semi-autonomously.

The collaboration between humans and robotic explorers opens new possibilities for efficiently gathering materials and conducting crucial tasks on the moon’s surface. As technology advances, these four-legged companions could play a pivotal role in laying the groundwork for humanity’s ambitious lunar aspirations.

By Impact Lab