As covered in a report from Live Science, NASA/JPL-Caltech researchers are using a Boston Dynamics "Spot" robot to train for exploring the terrain and caves of Mars.

The report comes from a presentation on Dec. 14 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), held online this year. In the meeting, researchers with NASA/JPL-Caltech unveiled their "Mars Dogs," who can navigate in ways the classic wheeled rovers such as Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and the newly released Perseverance never did. The latest robots' agility and endurance are paired with sensors that enable them to consider several pathways through the world and create maps of previously unknown tunnels and caverns for operators at home base.

"These behaviors could one day enable revolutionary scientific missions to take place on the Martian surface and subsurface, thereby pushing the boundaries of NASA's capability in exploring traditionally inaccessible sites"

Mars rovers, although able to safely move around on flat surfaces such as the plains, are very constrained in conveying knowledge regarding Martian landforms when they have to venture underground or into surrounding hillsides. Walking robot "dogs" are well-suited for such tasks because they are resilient and can re-start their operations even after falling down.

The Mars Dog would also be about 12 times smaller than the existing rovers and would be able to move even quicker, achieving usual walking speeds of 3 mph (5 km/h) during the experiments. To bring that into context, the Curiosity rover's speed on Mars is equivalent to that of a snail on Earth.

Caves found on Mars may prove to be valuable environments for potential human colonisation as they provide protection from deadly ultraviolet radiation, violent dust storms and severe cold temperatures of the earth. Caves can provide signs of existence from long ago, or may be used to sustain life on Mars today. A robotic legged computer that can move around rocks, lower itself into caves and pick a route while simultaneously taking measurements and creating a map of the area could give scientists new opportunities to identify signs of life.

The autonomous Mars dog called Spot is an improved variant of the robot created by Boston Dynamics. A team of 60 researchers and engineers fitted Au-Spot with networked hardware and software to help it securely and autonomously check, navigate, and map the climate.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Using Lidar (remote sensing), optical, thermal and motion sensors, the Au-Spot generates 3D maps. The Mars Dog uses artificial intelligence (AI) to learn which systems to stop, while a communications module helps the robot to move data to the surface while it's exploring underground.

CoSTAR team members are putting Au-Spot into practice on a number of various barriers, inside of hallways, in caves, on ramps, and in outdoor environments that resemble Martian ecosystems, such as lava tubes in Northern California. The demonstrations illustrate that untethered robots can map out caves and move around rocks.

Cover Photo: © NASA/JPL-Caltech