Fairy-tale-inspired rovers could use “breadcrumbs” to map caves on Mars

Exploring the depths of an uncharted cave system is a daunting enough prospect on its own, but think how risky it would be to do so on another planet like Mars. That’s why a new system is being developed that would use “breadcrumb” rovers to do the job.

Currently under development by a University of Arizona team led by Assoc. Professor Wolfgang Fink, the system incorporates a ground-based “mother” rover that would carry several smaller rovers to the entrance of a cave system. These small autonomous rovers then set off separately to explore different passages in the system, while the mother remained parked at the entrance.

As each rover moved through its respective path, it periodically dropped small wireless communication nodes called “breadcrumbs” onto the ground. These are named after the fictional bread crumbs that Hansel and Gretel used to find their way out of the Wicked Witch’s Woods.

In order to map the cave system, each small rover would transmit and receive radio signals to and from the mother at regular intervals. Because these signals would not travel well through solid rock, they would instead be relayed from one breadcrumb to another. The location of the breadcrumb would be determined by the rover – as soon as it detected that the signal it was receiving was getting weak, it would drop another breadcrumb.

Signals Since smaller rovers would contain information such as that rover’s location relative to the mother, possibly as well as data collected by on-board cameras and LiDAR sensors. By processing and combining all the information from all the little rovers, the mother would be able to produce a detailed computer map of the system.

It should be noted that the smaller rovers would be expendable, in that each would keep moving forward until it ran out of battery or breadcrumbs, or was stopped by terrain.

One of the prototype cave exploration rovers

Wolfgang Fink/University of Arizona

As well as being used purely in the name of scientific exploration, the technology could also be used to assess which caves and tunnels might be suitable for conversion into habitats for astronauts. Using existing underground structures for this purpose could be much easier and cheaper than constructing buildings from scratch on the surface of the planet.

Fink and his colleagues have already built working rovers with associated communication technology, and are currently working on a dispersal mechanism for the breadcrumbs.

The research is described in a recently published article in the journal Advances in space research.

Source: University of Arizona

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