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An autonomous lunar rover for space exploration RESEARCH MEETS INDUSTRY

From start-up culture to industry giants, every company wanting to maintain a competitive edge should prioritise their innovative capacity, wherein lies research at its core.

THIS IS WHERE PARTNERSHIPS BETWEEN INDUSTRY AND RESEARCH DEMONSTRATE THEIR STRONGEST POTENTIAL: COMPANIES HAVE ACCESS TO BRILLIANT SCIENTIFIC MINDS AND NEW PERSPECTIVEs, WHILE THE SCIENTISTS SEE THE DIRECT INDUSTRIAL IMPACT AND APPLICABILITY OF THEIR RESEARCH, THUS SHAPING THEM FOR A CAREER SUITABLE FOR BOTH INDUSTRY AND ACADEMIA.

In this article, we speak to PhD researcher Philippe Ludivig and ispace Europe, who as part of an FNR Industrial Fellowship between the space exploration company and the University of Luxembourg’s SnT, have joined forces to teach a small lunar rover how to find its way around on the Moon.

”It’s nice when you go home in the evening, you can look at the moon and say ‘that’s where my research is going!” says Philippe Ludivig, who started his PhD in February 2018.

Originally from Luxembourg, Philippe is no stranger to the space industry, having previously worked at the European Space Agency (ESA) as a trainee on ground data systems.

After finalising the legal framework for space resources utilisation in 2017, the Luxembourgish government developed and promoted the spaceresources.lu initiative to attract companies in the space sector, where Luxembourg has been making an early mark in space exploration endeavour, presenting a unique opportunity.

For companies to take the leap into space-related endeavours they will need to rely on the expertise of scientists to help them achieve their vision - Philippe is one of these scientists.

Philippe works on creating a navigation system for a small lunar rover

Philippe is employed by ispace Europe, the European headquarters of the lunar robotic exploration company based in Tokyo, Japan.

Since opening their European offices in Luxembourg in 2017, ispace Europe immediately started working with researchers with differing space-related backgrounds, and soon after, secured grants from the FNR’s schemes Industrial Fellowships and BRIDGES in various areas, including autonomous robotics, in-situ resource utilisation as well as lunar resources and reserves estimation.

“Any autonomy you can give your robot increases the amount of science you can get done in the mission lifetime”

As part of ispace’s team, Philippe works on creating a navigation system for a small lunar rover: teaching it to navigate around on the Moon’s surface, while creating a map, and locating itself on this map, in the process.

In the research domain, this is known as ‘SLAM’ – ‘Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping’. It essentially allows the rover to understand its environment, which is the first step needed to take autonomous decisions within this environment.

“We have a commanding system similar to what it would be on an actual mission so that we can operate as though it were a real scenario. But we also have the possibility to operate it directly” Philippe explains regarding how the rover, which can already drive, is operated.

Philippe’s work will be invaluable to the ispace rover reaches the lunar surface. The communication time delay as well as bandwidth issues make navigation from earth slow and cumbersome and therefore also means the loss of precious mission time. Hence, the company is very interested in increased autonomy Philippe’s research can provide.

“Any autonomy you can give your robot essentially increases the amount of science you can get done in the mission lifetime. For ispace, this is particularly interesting because we are currently aiming for a very brief initial mission. Our rovers are built very small, but that also means they don’t survive the lunar night: we have a mission lifetime of up to 14 days, which is very short”, Philippe explains.
The biggest ‘problem’ in Philippe’s research is that he cannot test the rover on the actual moon: “We do the next best thing: in the first phase, we test our algorithms in a virtual environment [pictured] where we can drive our rover around and test our solutions and approaches."

Once their testing in the virtual environment has yielded favourable results, they move on to a more physical approach, working within an 'indoor moon environment', built at ispace Europe to simulate the lunar surface.

Here, Philippe can better test the rover with real-world sensors. He explains that although “real world” environment isn’t exactly the same as the Moon itself, it is a more accurate depiction than the almost perfect images and sensor data generated by the virtual environment.

At ispace, they will explore all creative and innovative options, because “it allows the company to augment their knowledge and pioneer new domains”.

“As opposed to the virtual images, we can capture actual images here, including the noise in the data: the sensor data is more realistic in that sense, even if we are locked to the size of the testing facility” Philippe explains regarding testing the lunar rover.

Image: The rover on the lunar analogue testing facility.

Exploring topics otherwise out of reach

Dr Julien Lamamy was hired as ispace Europe’s Engineering Manager in 2017 and is today the company’s Managing Director. Responsible for managing ispace Europe’s collaborations with research on a day-to-day basis, he explains that the obvious benefit the FNR’s funding schemes such as Industrial Fellowships offer companies such as ispace Europe is the valuable opportunity to work with researchers such as Philippe.

Philippe adds: “It allows the University and company to jointly explore topics they would not be able to explore otherwise - universities don’t necessarily have the tools to take a rover to the moon - together they make advances in domains of research.”
“The FNR’s BRIDGES and Industrial Fellowships schemes have helped us integrate ourselves into the ecosystem in Luxembourg, where we are now active in collaborations with SnT/uni.lu and LIST, as well as opening international research collaborations with the UK and Australia.
"The FNR-funded projects are aligning well with our business activities and are a big contributor to ispace Europe’s identity. The future is bright, there is no reason why our collaborations with these scientists should end after the FNR projects are completed” Julien explains.

As Philippe’s supervisor at ispace Europe, Julien advises Philippe on the management of his project, as well as the whole perspective of his role in the company, putting a lot of emphasis on project management – milestones, hardware needed and budget available. This is a crucial component for early-stage researchers interested in pursuing a career outside of academia.

Philippe with Julien Lamamy (middle) and fellow Industrial Fellow Carlos Espejel (left), who works on developing a methodology for space mining.

Focus on real-world ramifications

Philippe emphasises that doing a research project with a company is somewhat different from an academic research project with real-life ramifications at the heart of every decision:

“I like how ispace has very organic way of approaching problems, you can propose new ways of solving problems. I have to keep everything in mind when I work on my project and any problems that may come up: If I propose a solution, I also have to think of whether or not it’s actually feasible for ispace to do this. I can’t design a huge rover with all the sensors I would like in order to solve all my problems: instead I have to think of what sensors I would actually be able to get and send to the Moon as a private company.”
“The appeal of being on this project – and an additional motivation – is pushing the frontier and the possibility that I will actually see my research fly [to the Moon] on an actual rover, which very few people who work in space robotics will be able to do.”

More in this series

A mine planning methodology for space - Carlos Espejel (ispace Europe / University of New South Wales)

A technique to enrich Moon minerals - Joshua Rasera (ispace Europe / Imperial College London)

About Philippe Ludivig

Philippe Ludivig is from Luxembourg. He has a bachelor's degree in Computer Visualisation (UK), a masters degree in Digital Effects (UK) and an M.Sc. in Information and Computer Sciences (LU). Before starting his PhD at ispace, he worked as a Computer Vision Expert at the University of Luxembourg as well as a Science Mission Data Systems Analyst at the European Space Agency (ESA).

Find out more about this project on the SnT website

© ispace

About Julien Lamamy

Dr Julien Lamamy, a French national, holds a M.Sc. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Ecole Centrale de Lyon, France, and a PhD from renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA, also in Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Before joining ispace Europe as Engineering Manager in 2017, Julien spent 16 years in the United States. There he worked in satellite engineering, working both for NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), as well as Orbital, a company specialising in the design, manufacture and launch of small- and medium- class space and rocket systems (Orbital has since merged with other companies to become Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.)

© ispace

About Industrial Fellowships

The aim of the FNR's Industrial Fellowships programme (formerly AFR-PPP) is to foster the cooperation between Luxembourg based companies active in R&D and public research institutions in Luxembourg and/or abroad. The scheme awards PhD and Postdoc grants to researchers who carry out their PhD and/or postdoc training in collaboration with a company in Luxembourg. The scheme is open to all scientific domains, and to all researchers, regardless of their nationality. Collaborating companies must have a presence in Luxembourg.

ABOUT ispace

ispace Europe S.A. is one of many companies that have set up shop in Luxembourg as a result of the SpaceResources.lu initiative. Founded in September 2010 by Takeshi Hakamada, ispace is a private lunar exploration company focused on developing micro-robotic systems to locate, characterise, extract, produce and deliver resources from the lunar surface to customers on the Moon and in cislunar space. In March 2017, ispace signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Luxembourg Government in the context of the SpaceResources.lu initiative, with a focus on developing miniaturised technology to discover, map, and utilise resources on the Moon. ispace-inc.com

ABOUT THE CENTRE FOR SECURITY, RELIABILITY AND TRUST (SnT)

The Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) launched by the University of Luxembourg targets research and PhD education in Security, Reliability and Trust.

The overall aim of SnT is to become a European centre of excellence and innovation for secure, reliable, and trustworthy ICT systems and services. To create an impact, an interdisciplinary research approach is essential, taking not only technical aspects into account but also addressing business/organisational, human/user, and legal/regulatory issues.

SnT aims to achieve high impact and excellence by collaborating with external partners such as industries, government bodies, institutions, and international actors.

Research activities are carried out through interdisciplinary research platforms targeting key areas of strategic importance for the region.

Credits:

Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) / ispace