As the Perseverance rover explores the Jezero crater on Mars, engineers at NASA are trying out a new capability that lets the rover navigate itself around the rocky terrain.
Currently, rover drivers like Vandi Verma at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory use 3D glasses to visualize and plan out driving routes. “Jezero is incredible,” Verma said. “It’s a rover driver’s paradise. When you put on the 3D glasses, you see so much more undulation in the terrain. Some days I just stare at the images.”
Vandi Verma, an engineer who now works with NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, is seen here working as a driver for the Curiosity rover. The special 3D glasses she’s wearing are still used by rover drivers to easily detect changes in terrain that the rover may need to avoid. NASA/JPL-Caltech
Now, though, the rover will start navigating by itself more often. The rover has an automated driving system called AutoNav which uses 3D maps of the terrain to plot out a safe route to drive while avoiding obstacles. This means it can plan and execute its own driving plan without the support staff back on Earth having to direct everything manually. Though the rover drivers still carefully oversee the process to make sure the routes are safe and that they are heading in the right direction to find geologically interesting samples.
“We have a capability called ‘thinking while driving,’” Verma said. “The rover is thinking about the autonomous drive while its wheels are turning.”
The big advantage of this capability is not in terms of maneuverability but in terms of speed. Manually planning out the exact safest driving route possible all the way from Earth takes a lot of time, which is one reason why rovers rarely move more than 200 meters in a day. With the new ability, Perseverance may be able to go as fast as 120 meters per hour.
“We sped up AutoNav by four or five times,” said Michael McHenry, the mobility domain lead and part of JPL’s team of rover planners. “We’re driving a lot farther in a lot less time than Curiosity demonstrated.”
For comparison, the Curiosity rover, which has roughly similar hardware to Perseverance but does not have the new AutoNav system, is currently traveling at around 20 meters per hour. The rover engineers are hopeful that this increased speed will help Perseverance in its search for evidence of ancient life.
“We’re going to be able to get to places the scientists want to go much more quickly,” said Jennifer Trosper, who has worked on every one of NASA’s Martian rovers and is the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover project manager. “Now we are able to drive through these more complex terrains instead of going around them: It’s not something we’ve been able to do before.”