Out of this world

By |  July 12, 2015

Ground rover prototypes are being tested at a Massachusetts sand-and-gravel operation to see if they’re ready to help explore other planets.

Do sand-and-gravel pits really
 resemble the surface of planets like Mars?

Velin Dimitrov, Ph.D. candidate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass., believes they do. That’s what prompted him to contact Karen Hubacz-Kiley, COO at Bond Construction Corp. in spring 2014 and inquire about using the site to test ground rover prototypes.

“Velin expects that the prototypes he and his colleagues are working on could some day go to Mars or another planet in the solar system,” Hubacz-Kiley says. “As they develop equipment design, they need a place with landscape similar to Mars where they can test the equipment’s effectiveness. At one point, Velin and his team took the rovers to Arizona, but that’s quite a trek from Massachusetts.”

Dimitrov’s ground rover prototypes are comparable in size to a riding lawn mower. But, instead of a seat and all the traditional mower parts, the rovers carry ground-penetrating-radar (GPR) equipment or other sensors that capture data about the rover’s surroundings and environment. Scientists can retrieve the data and use it to further our understanding of current and past conditions on Mars.

Data collection

“Typically, GPR consists of antennae that send out electromagnetic signals,” Dimitrov says. “An integrated computer records the strength of the signal and the time it takes for the signal to be reflected. Objects that cause signal reflections can be almost anything. What we’re testing on these prototypes is how accurately they reflect the geological aspects of the [sand-and gravel pit]. The information they gather from the pit is similar to the data they’ll need to collect if they’re used on another planet.”

If the prototypes are used on another planet, the information they retrieve would help scientists control their position and movements, guiding the prototypes to areas where scientists desire to collect information.

NASA placed the rover currently on Mars in 2012.

“NASA plans to send another rover to Mars in 2020,” Dimitrov says. “The rover will collect and store samples that NASA may pick up in future missions and bring back to Earth for analysis. The rover they send is likely to be equipped with GPR. We’re hoping our prototypes demonstrate useful ideas and concepts in regard to how a GPR can be used on a different planet. Another of our goals is to demonstrate the mountainous task of data collection that robots can accomplish. They could be used in other industries besides space exploration.”

The GPR systems Dimitrov is using are manufactured by Geophysical Survey Systems Inc. (GSSI) in Nashua, N.H. Paul Fowler, GSSI vice president of sales and marketing, says GPR identifies many geophysical aspects not visible to the eye in an unexplored area.

“GPR provides indications of fractures and faults or evidence of water and minerals,” Fowler says. “The information also reveals how deep the bedrock extends below the surface. The technology can be used for many different applications including guidance, where GPR can help navigate around a crevasse or crater in order to avoid causing damage to the rover.”

Inactive pit

One of Bond Construction’s pits is currently inactive, making it an ideal location for Dimitrov’s tests. After he visited the site, Dimitrov asked Hubacz-Kiley to write a letter to WPI’s engineering department to confirm that her construction company was willing to collaborate with Dimitrov on his testing.

The site Dimitrov selected contains large amounts of cobblestone with stockpiles of small product and piles of some larger boulders. Those characteristics were ideal for the types of testing Dimitrov needed to complete.

“The boulders allow Velin to test the rover’s ability to navigate around a large obstacle,” Hubacz-Kiley says. “The pit is obviously not a smooth landscape, so the equipment is challenged to go over different types of obstacles, testing its true ability.”

In preparing for the first tests, Dimitrov and Hubacz-Kiley communicated thoroughly about what was needed and what each could expect.

“While Velin and his team were at the pit, I was there, too,” Hubacz-Kiley says. “Before they started testing, I reviewed site-specific information with them. We discussed safety issues in regard to sand and gravel operations. Since the pit itself was inactive at the time, there weren’t any issues related to stockpiled product.

“There were also no haul trucks, front-end loaders or excavators working in the pit. Without mining activity, we also didn’t have to contend with any dust issues that might hinder their testing activity.”

In initial testing, Dimitrov looked at the rover’s software. Subsequent visits to the pit will be used to test equipment hardware.
Part of Dimitrov’s project includes submission of a funding proposal to NASA to help pay for equipment elements such as the GPR software and ongoing prototype testing. He appreciates Hubacz-Kiley’s willingness to assist his research.

‘Happy to assist’

“Bond Construction’s gravel pit is only 20 minutes away from where we are,” Dimitrov says. “Whenever we need to test something, we can quickly make the trip. Karen offered to bring in additional aggregate products if we needed them. She’s been very accommodating.

“In Massachusetts, it’s not easy to find a large area of undeveloped land, so this has been very helpful,” Dimitrov adds.
Hubacz-Kiley was happy to assist.

“I’ve never heard of any equipment or testing like this before,” she says. “During one of Velin’s visits he took some photos he could submit to NASA along with his funding request. All the visits have gone very smoothly. If it’s within our power to do anything that will help them succeed in their project, we’re happy to be involved. I believe it’s important to assist in these kinds of events if you’re in a position to do it.”

Bond Sand, Gravel and Asphalt has been owned and operated by the Hubacz family for more than 40 years and is now into its fourth generation. The company produces “a variety of top-quality aggregate products for construction, building, landscaping and development projects, as well as weekend-warrior undertakings.

Take note

Initial testing looked at the rover’s software. Subsequent visits to the pit will be used to test equipment hardware.

Loretta Sorensen is a freelance writer in Yankton, S.D. She produces material on a variety of topics, serves as a ghostwriter, and has authored her own books.

Allison Kral

About the Author:

Allison Kral is the former senior digital media manager for North Coast Media (NCM). She completed her undergraduate degree at Ohio University where she received a Bachelor of Science in magazine journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She works across a number of digital platforms, which include creating e-newsletters, writing articles and posting across social media sites. She also creates content for NCM's Portable Plants magazine, GPS World magazine and Geospatial Solutions. Her understanding of the ever-changing digital media world allows her to quickly grasp what a target audience desires and create content that is appealing and relevant for any client across any platform.

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