CADRE Rover Prototypes Drive in Formation

CADRE: a new way to make old-style exploration

CADRE rovers are revolutionizing robotic space exploration starting from the Moon. They will explore the lunar surface with minimal support from Earth

Since the first Moon landing, it is not a secret that mankind has been dreaming of walking on Mars, but an interplanetary manned mission is a complicated business. Technologies to ensure the astronauts’ survival both during the trip and during the stay are expensive and, in any case, still under development.

However, many robotic missions have been sent to keep exploring and understanding what awaits the first humans that visit the Red Planet. Nevertheless, up to now, also robots present important limitations (they can’t visit caves for example). To overcome some, NASA is developing the so-called A-PUFFER (Autonomous Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot) technology, of which the CADRE (Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Exploration) robots represent the latest version.

CADRE and Perseverance
A CADRE test rover appears to catch the attention of the much larger engineering model of NASA’s Perseverance rover. Credits: NASA/Caltech


What CADRE is?

Remote-controlled rovers are suitable for Moon missions, where signals need just a few seconds to reach Earth, but this is not the case for further destinations where signals need several minutes, hours or, in future scenarios, even days. A similar solution can’t be comfortable, especially because it slows down the amount of science a mission can accomplish. Here comes the role of the CADRE robots.

To cut the time needed for rovers to choose actions to do, control must be moved from Earth to the celestial body interested, and that’s exactly the idea behind CADRE.

Small robots are designed to be agile enough to explore extreme terrain on the Moon (used as a technology test environment). However, the peculiar feature is the ability of each robot to communicate with each other to take any decision, even in conditions where there is a lack of connection with Earth. The presence of multiple robots allows the system to have different points of view of the surroundings.

CADRE Robots in Planetary Robotics Lab
CADRE Robots in Planetary Robotics Lab – Building 82. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ryan Lannom

Communication between robots will be made possible thanks to a base station placed on the lander that carried them in place. This will allow the system to share all the information such as maps and hazards, reducing dependency on engineers’ control. In particular, NASA will send broad directives to the lander, then the “leader” of the robots will distribute work assignments. According to NASA, the objective is to send only a very simple instruction, such as “Explore this region”, and the system will figure out everything else.

What’s more?

CADRE robots are planned to be part of a NASA’s CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) mission direct to the Moon’s equator by 2024. Here the thermal conditions are very harsh, with temperature up to 114 °C, and the robots should be made with lightweight but robust materials. At the same time, however, they need to have enough computing power to run the JPL-developed autonomy software, and this causes heat production.

To prevent overheating during a “mission”, every 30 minutes the little rovers will simultaneously and autonomously shut down, cooling off through radiators and recharging batteries. After that, they will wake up and choose a new leader based on who fits the best conditions for the exploration.


At what stage is the project?

An A-PUFFER in June 2019 successfully navigated to a predetermined location completely autonomously avoiding rocks, estimating its position, and building a 2D map. In February 2020, instead, the robots were three and communicated with a base station creating an integrated map.

Similar technology can become a standard in future robotic missions. CADRE could help map unexplored regions on the Moon or regions of other planets difficult to reach, enabling a new way to do space exploration and research.


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Matteo Ferrarini

Matteo Ferrarini

B.Sc in aerospace engineering, now studying the world of renewable energy. Always looking at the stars, but sometimes you can find me underwater.

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