VSSEC Welcomes the Mars Autonomous Science Laboratory (MASL)

VSSEC Welcomes the Mars Autonomous Science Laboratory (MASL)

Dr Ali H. Goktogan from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, University of Sydney, delivered VSSEC’s Mars Autonomous Science Laboratory (MASL) on Friday, 5th November 2010.

The completion of this autonomous vehicle has been the culmination of a 3-year partnership between VSSEC and ACFR to develop autonomous vehicles for secondary education, and provide an excellent grounding for ACFR to develop future autonomous vehicles for education throughout Australia.


VSSEC Director, Michael Pakasis, congratulates Dr Goktogan on the successful trial on VSSEC’s Mars Surface

The MASL is an integral part of VSSEC’s Robotics program, which is due to begin trialling in 2011. Please contact VSSEC if your school would like to be part of the trialling program. Participating schools will receive a discount voucher for a full mission program.


MASL on VSSEC's  Mars surface.

As part of the program, teachers are provided with pre-visit teaching material for students which includes:

  • - An examination of the environmental and technical challenges of a Mission to Mars
    - Specifications of a Mars robot and the negotiations between the teams of engineers and scientists who design them
    - Design of a Mars robot, including hazard avoidance, position knowledge and path planning
    - Energy and propulsionRobot control and the principles of navigation, including latitude and longitude, localisation, map making, obstacle avoidance, path finding and MER rover navigation
    - An investigation of Robotic sensors compares the human visual system using optical illusions, with the role of robotic sensors, including spectral analysis.

The other integral part of the program is web-based software designed by La Trobe University Games Technology Lab in 2009, and developed by Aerion Technologies to include a control system for the MASL.

Sample of Robotic Mission to Mars Mission Control screens

Aligned with the year 9 and 10 curriculum, the MASL mission is designed for two teams of students, engineers and scientists, to work collaboratively.

  • - The engineers test the MASL’s performance capabilities and plan their mission; selecting the most appropriate route and comparing the scientific value of the site visited against the energy budget and available time

  • - The scientists select sites to be visit, analyse the data collected by the MASL, and provide an interactive environment between the engineers and scientists.

VSSEC’s Robotic Mission to Mars will be available in two formats:

  • - Online, using access to VSSEC’s software to convert a school’s computer laboratory into a Mission Control, and remotely control the MASL on VSSEC’s Mars floor.

  • - At VSSEC, which will include a 2-hour hands on inquiry-based session focussing on the science and engineering of robots as well as a first hand investigation of the MASL’s systems.

We would like to emphasise that MASL will be completely controlled by the participating students. University student mentors will be used to deliver the inquiry-based learning activities. The MASL is equipped with navigation cameras, and vision based localisation provided by an overhead camera determining the rover’s position and orientation for navigation and path planning. An arm-mounted camera is still to be completed.

VSSEC/ACFR Robotic Rover – some history

The VSSEC MASL Mission to Mars was a very ambitious project. In consultation with the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, VSSEC began the search for a suitable autonomous vehicle for our interdisciplinary robotic program in early 2007.

In mid 2007, Michael Pakakis and Phillip Spencer of VSSEC, visited Carnegie-Mellon summer robotics school at NASA AMES, and eventually decided these robots were more suited for a proposed year 5 to 8 robotics program.

The Shrimp Robot from Switzerland was also investigated and was found to an excellent robot for investigating the navigation of rough terrains including climbing stairs, but ACFR had concerns regarding the platform tilt and the angles and operation of navigation cameras, and proposed that they would develop an autonomous vehicle. Even though this caused delays to the project, it was ultimately a better option built with local capability and showcasing Australian expertise.

ACFR embedded the design of the autonomous vehicle within their undergraduate and postgraduate program, overseen by experienced academics and supported by PhD students.