Published online 30 September 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040927-17


Rover is an astronaut's best friend

A dog-like robot could accompany humans into space.

The Extra-Vehicular Activity Robotic Assistant (ERA) could become astronauts’ best friend.The Extra-Vehicular Activity Robotic Assistant (ERA) could become astronauts’ best friend.© NASA

A robot that can fetch and come to heel just like a well-trained dog is set to help astronauts explore the Moon and Mars.

The metallic mutt, nicknamed Boudreaux, is officially called the Extra Vehicular Activity Robotic Assistant. It runs on four wheels and is about the size of a small golf cart, similar to the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

Tests conducted in the middle of the Utah desert in April 2004 proved that Boudreaux can follow a pair of astronauts at walking pace, carrying tools, geological samples or analysis equipment for them.

It is nearly autonomous, able to plan a route for itself through rocky areas, but it also responds to voice commands, obediently trundling over to where an astronaut is working. It can even tell the astronauts where it is.

With stereovision cameras to relay pictures of the astronauts back to a control centre, it will also allow mission commanders to keep a watchful eye on interplanetary explorers.

"It's a lot of fun to watch when the test subjects realize how much the robot can do for them," says Kim Tyree, a robotics engineer from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, who works on the project. She says that the test subjects, mostly geology graduate students dressed in space suits, quickly begin to treat the robot just like a canine companion.

Rover at the ready

The robotic dog has some advantages over its human counterparts. Boudreaux has a dextrous arm that can pick up rock samples or dropped tools, tasks that are tricky for an astronaut wearing a bulky, inflexible space suit. On a long mission, the robotic dog would also be a lighter load for a spacecraft than a human with accompanying gear.

Boudreaux has been tested in the Utah desert.Boudreaux has been tested in the Utah desert.© NASA

Its tracking system currently works using a global positioning system (GPS), so the astronauts would need orbiting satellites on whatever planet they visit for the rover to work best. But as a back-up, Boudreaux can also use on-board cameras to navigate.

"It's very likely they will take a robot like this on a manned mission in the future," says Chris Culbert, head of robotics research at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, who presented the latest results from the project at the Space 2004 conference in San Diego this week. As it could be 15 years or more before humans return to the Moon, Culbert thinks that Boudreaux will be ready to go into space before we are.

The robotics team at Johnson are better known for Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed for space walks that was unveiled in 2000. Tyree confesses that her small team felt a little overshadowed by Robonaut, which is likely to see active duty much sooner than Boudreaux. "But with NASA's new focus on manned space exploration, we're getting a lot more attention," she says. The team are now planning another trip to Utah to try out an improved obstacle avoidance system.