Asteroid inspection with UAVs

With the recent success of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, it has become apparent that autonomous UAVs have a bright and exciting future ahead of them. Although the UAVs from Earth can not be used directly in space but they are extremely useful for testing and enhancing the technology that enables the space exploration.

Fly4Future (F4F) was part of one such effort in a project in the University of Bremen, Germany. The KaNaRiA-NaKoRa project was focused on the development and validation of autonomous near-field navigation of cooperative spacecraft for landing on small planetary bodies.

The major goal of the project was the hardware-related development of the navigation and landing units for small planetary bodies such as asteroids, comets and moons. At the end of the project, the methods and algorithms were tested in the volcanic landscape of the El Teide National Park on Tenerife. The volcanic environment provided an analogue for the rocky surface of asteroids and moons.

The custom platform from Fly4Future (F4F) provided the necessary test-bed for the methods developed by the team at the University of Bremen. The platform along with the open-source autonomy engine is a standalone system which is designed for fast deployment. This reduces the time spent in configuration of hardware and software systems before deployment and helps the team to focus on the task at hand.

Platform details

The fully-equipped platform built for University of Bremen in Germany was based on a DJI quadcopter F450 frame and had the following configuration:

  • T-Motor MN2212 920KV motors
  • PixHawk 4 flight controller
  • Intel NUC-i7 onboard computer
  • Garmin Lidar rangefinder
  • PRECIS-BX305 GNSS RTK
  • 2 Ouster Lidars for mapping the surface

Application

The Ouster Lidar is a powerful 3D sensor which provides rich data about the 3D environment. A platform equipped with Ouster Lidar can be used for mapping ancient archaeological sites, historical buildings and even outdoor construction sites. The mobility of the UAV provides and additional advantage as the sensor can be moved to different configurations and tight spaces which is challenging for humans or even other robots.

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