Shoot for the Moon
Designing unmanned lunar rovers opened many doors for Ontario Drive & Gear.
Have you ever dreamed of living in outer space? Sure, you can read the latest sci-fi novel to get a feel for what colonizing a lunar or planetary body might entail. However, moving people into space might not be that far off.
The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is putting its money where its mouth is by supporting local engineering firms to develop the latest space tech. Currently, the federal government has earmarked more than CAD$432 million dollars for space data, information, exploration and future capacity. And although this is only a fraction of the approximately US$18.4 billion budget set by NASA, Canadian innovation is driving space exploration.
“To actually get something interesting done, it does cost money,” explains Peter Visscher, VP Engineering, Argo – Space, Robotics and Defence at Ontario Drive & Gear Ltd. (ODG). “Canada is very good at turning that money into commercial activity at a ratio of something like 8:1. There are some studies out there that show government investment into space in Canada has huge payback and generally quite quickly as well.”
For Canada to maintain its lead as a world provider of robotics on the lunar surface, significant investment needs to be in place to ensure we are the first to the gate. One way they are doing this is through funding of space rover development. That’s where ODG comes in.
The project began in 2007 with two Canadian companies winning contracts for a concept study for a manned lunar rover. As the project expanded, more Canadian players entered the game, including Ontario-based Ontario Drive & Gear.
The engineers at ODG started off with the JUNO 1 Rover concept and, over the span of six weeks, managed to develop the idea for a lunar rover that was then submitted to the CSA.
“It was very well received and we received two contracts with our partners to build prototypes,” says Visscher. “One thing led to another and we continue to make improvements to that vehicle; we are at iteration five or six now.”
The JUNO 1 Rover is a 4-wheel skid-steer multi-purpose lunar rover capable of carrying a variety of payload instruments. It has a carrying capacity of 275kg and can reach maximum speeds of 12.5km/h. The rover has been used in NASA-led field tests on the rocky slopes of a Hawaiian volcano to simulate missions to the Moon in 2010 and 2012.
According to the CSA, “Juno can carry almost as much as it weighs, is surprisingly quick and agile and can drive over all sorts of terrain and large rocks.”
No Second Shot
For the most part, there hasn’t been a ton of robotic vehicle activity on the Moon since the Russian Lunokhod programme, which saw two rovers land on the Moon in the early 1970s.
You need to jump ahead 40 years before another space agency attempted to land a rover on the Moon. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) landed its Yutu unmanned lunar rover in 2013. However, after suffering significant mechanical control problems, the rover was declared permanently inoperable.
“You don’t get a second shot with space stuff,” explains Visscher. “If something goes wrong with a space mission, it’s awful. We just take it for granted that it’s easy, but it’s not. It’s really challenging.”
For example, in 2016, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander crashed on Mars due to a 1-second inertial measurement error during landing.
Similarly, NASA’s Curiosity rover has only moved about 12km on Mars, out of an expected 120km, due to breakage in one of its wheel treads.
“That’s a big problem,” Visscher reiterates. “It’s a multi-billion dollar mission and the rover on Mars has a flat tire.”
Yet, there is a big opportunity here for Canada and Visscher hopes that the government connects to it very soon.
Until then, ODG engineers continue to develop next-gen unmanned space rovers. With every new generation, the vehicle gets a little lighter and more space-worthy, using materials more suitable for operations on the Moon. Along the way, the team has had some great adventures testing the vehicles in exotic places in order to get as lunar-like as possible.
The team has provided the mobility platforms for some of the high profile NASA activities including a platform designed to find and characterize water on the surface of the Moon.
“In the big picture, finding water on the Moon will be one of the keys to exploring the rest of the solar system,” explains Visscher. The Resource Prospector program has been running since the early 2000s and operates on the premise that finding water on the Moon will enable space exploration to go greater lengths than ever imagined.
Visscher adds that there has been a lot of interest in the Moon in the last year as space agencies around the world recognize that going to Mars is not feasible until we learn how to live on the Moon.
That is how a program called Lunar Village developed. Largely led by the European Space Agency, along with the CSA and NASA, the project aims to build infrastructure on the Moon starting with an orbiting space station around the Moon and some ground assets.
“When we hear ground assets, we get pretty excited because we know that means mobility platforms like rovers,” Visscher explains. “We are hoping that the next ten years will be a very exciting time.”
The Moon or Bust
The company’s most recent space vehicles, delivered to CSA in May 2016, are the Lunar Rover Platform and Drivetrain Prototype (LRPDP) and the Small Planetary Rover Platform (SPRP). The LRPDP is a small, lightweight planetary rover prototype with power and mechanical interfaces to accommodate small exploration surface mobility (ESM) payloads. The SPRP is an advanced lightweight lunar rover prototype. This prototype’s drivetrain has been the subject of unique simulated lunar environment testing – simultaneous exposure to vacuum, extreme temperatures from -180°C to +130°C and lunar dust simulant.
How to Design a Lunar Rover
To design an unmanned lunar rover, the engineers at ODG must take everything into account, and generally start from the ground up, beginning with the tires. Rubber is not an option on the Moon and there doesn’t seem to be any hope that traditional pneumatic tires will work.
“We started from scratch to come up with a wheel that only uses metallic compounds, yet remains flexible for good traction,” says Visscher.
The semi-compliant metallic wheel was designed for the CSA and roughly cost about half a million dollars to develop. The Titanium Interlaced Rim Enabling Lunar Exploration and Surface Sampling (TIRELESS), ODG’s semi-compliant metallic wheels, come in a 50-60cm diameter with a load rating of 350-1000N.
“We’ve got a design that seems to work very well and the CSA has adopted it as their official lunar wheel, which is great news,” he adds.
Beyond the tires, designing a lunar vehicle requires factoring in the environment in which it will operate. For example, the rover must be able to survive in extreme temperatures. The lunar night, which is 14 days long, can reach temperatures of -243°F (-153°C), which needs to be factored into the design on the battery systems. During the Canadian winter, temperatures can get down to -30°C making it difficult to start a car in the morning. The engineers must find ways to ensure the battery system doesn’t fail in this extreme cold. And ODG is working with some partners to ensure this is the case.
On the other hand, the lunar day can be an even greater extreme; temperatures can reach 253°F (123°C). With no air movement, engineers are tasked with finding ways to dissipate the heat. ODG is working with companies to help design a thermal-control system that deals with this challenge.
“We’ve put a lot of work into making them look really cool and carefully choosing the colours,” explains Visscher. “The vehicle is usually white, primarily to dissipate heat. But we also use a little bit of industrial design, which goes a long way.”
One thing is certain: Designing a vehicle that is extremely reliable is key. You simply cannot afford to send something to the Moon if there is any risk of it getting stuck, tipping over or failing. Careful design, where weight is reduced but the strength remains, is an important equation for ODG engineers.
“We eliminate as many failure points as we can,” says Visscher. “Finding the possibility of a failure point, we try and redesign the system so that if something fails, there’s another part to back it up.”
There is a lot of wear when it comes to critical components. The wheels are a good example of that. They often wear out, bending and getting cracks. It’s important that they still work and that a small issue doesn’t mean a mission stoppage or failure.
To Go A-Roving
Being a part of significant space programs has given ODG a reputation as the go-to company for lunar robotics. However, it has also offered some unique side effects. The ODG’s Space, Robotics and Defence division was able to develop an engineering group that isn’t afraid to try new things.
This is obviously a really challenging field and the recognition has helped the company build a strong team.
“We are not afraid to try something but not everything works,” says Visscher. “When we design something for a space vehicle, it often has spinoffs… We always say ‘Aim for the stars, settle for the Moon.”
ODG’s J5, an “off-the-shelf” model that is similar in size to an ATV but uses the company’s lunar rover architecture, is a prime example of these spinoff projects. Visscher explains that the market for this type of vehicle is growing very quickly and the team will probably make more off this class of vehicle than any other.
“It’s all about keeping people safe,” he adds. The J5 is a rugged platform that can be fitted with a number of attachments and sent into dangerous situations, like fighting fires, without suffering from the damaging effects of water, smoke or flame.
At the other end of the scale, ODG’s J8 is an 8-wheeler, fully amphibious robot designed off of the company’s flagship ARGO platform.
“This vehicle is for a heavier payload and entering much more extreme terrain,” Visscher says. The J8 has a base weight of 750km, maximum land payload of 570kg and a footprint of 1.55m x 2.95m. It can move at a maximum land speed of 30km/h. It is a highly customizable platform that can be adapted to any mission-specific device to system.
In March of this year, ODG delivered three Atlas J8 vehicles to the federal government as part of the Build in Canada Research Program (BICRP). This $1 million contract allows the federal government to be an early adopter of this product and test it at a military research centre in Suffield, AB.
Defence is a leading market for ODG, because building these high-tech platforms can be really expensive. The defence market is not as price sensitive as the academic or commercial markets, enabling a company to get a return on investment (ROI) in less time. Also, going into the defence segment first helps a company gain credibility and get vehicles on the ground and production going.
“Having defence customers for the first year or two of a project/product has really been a great strategy for us,” Visscher adds. “There are a lot of stops on the way to the Moon.”
This segment has helped the company move in a secondary direction. When it comes to landing space contracts, ODG has found that politics sometimes trumps engineering. The CSA only has so many contracts available and although the company has worked on some strategic programs with NASA, this may not always be the case. Nonetheless, it’s an exciting time at ODG.
“It’s a product explosion,” exclaims Visscher, “We usually developed a new vehicle every five years. In the past 8 years, we’ve designed and sold 8 new vehicles, so 1 per year. That’s pretty cool.”