First Comparative Field Test of Pressurised Rover Prototypes
Graham A. Mann
Opportunity for Field Testing of Pressurised Rovers
Most plans for Mars exploration agree on the need for at least one pressurised rover [1,2,3,4], a vehicle capable of safely and comfortably carrying explorers tens to hundreds of kilometres away from the main landing site habitat, in scientific sorties lasting days or even weeks. Since the explorers will be a long way from home, a pressurised rover must be a self-contained oasis of comfort, providing everything needed for human life: air, water, food, heat, shelter, communications, a toilet and bathroom, sleeping and working facilities. Safety is at a premium, so all critical equipment must be reliable and allow alternatives in the case of breakdown, either by redundancy, multiple use, or at least the possibility of repair. A pressurised rover would be different from an unpressurised rover, such as those used in the later Apollo missions, because it would be larger, have a greater range and provide a shirtsleeves environment. Most specifications include at least partial automation, so that the vehicle could navigate, and perform some manipulation tasks under remote guidance, or even fully autonomously.
The Mars Society has seed-funded several analogy rover prototypes around the world. A group based at Queens University in Kingston, Canada has completed its ARES analogue vehicle . Similarly, a US chapter at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is developing Everest, the first of two planned prototypes . The Mars Society of Australia is now constructing the Starchaser Marsupial rover . The current work evaluates the two North American machines; it is intended that the Starchaser vehicle will in future be added to the comparative study.
Of what value are these analogue mockups in preparing for Mars exploration? Given that they are all low-fidelity analogues, meaning essentially modified commercial trucks, with fossil-fuel power plants, conventional transmission to the wheels, no real pressurised cabin, and rudimentary navigation and communications equipment, how will they help us toward future sophisticated vehicles meeting the above requirements? Clearly, one cannot at this stage properly model some aspects of driving on Mars, such as the low gravity, the very low temperatures and pressures, the radiation levels, etc. Nor does the current level of technology development support experiments with realistic fuel and power systems (but see the University of Michigan's plans for the second prototype, Olympus ). No pressurised rover projects known to the author presently include actual autonomous driving or manipulation capabilities, though this will almost certainly be adapted from autonomous vehicle  or exploratory rover  projects. Yet some very basic questions about pressurised rovers can be addressed using current analogues including:
It is important to understand that the Mars Society's research is currently the only real development path which might lead to a pressurised rover. Ideally, these tests would represent the beginning of a process of incremental technology development, building ever higher-fidelity vehicles and subjecting them to ever more rigorous testing. The process should end with contractors manufacturing the real flight hardware, or at least provide information in support of that end.
The Canadian Mars Society's Expedition One, which in the spring of 2003 brought the Ares and Everest rovers to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in south western Utah, provided a unique opportunity (Figure 1). For the first time, different concepts of pressurised rover could be directly compared in a realistic Mars-like setting. The third vehicle, Aonia, is an unmodified Nissan Pathfinder Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) and was opportunistically included in the test program to serve as a baseline datapoint on a familiar type of vehicle. The logistics plan for Ex-One called for the Ares and Everest machines to be rapidly made ready for field tests and then to travel great distances across North America in extreme weather conditions. Both vehicles suffered breakdowns and other problems which could have delayed or prevented their arrival at MDRS for field trials. It is a tribute to the dedication and skill of the rover teams that they were able to overcome these obstacles and deliver on schedule.
In what follows, the experimental design and data collection methods will first be outlined. Then principle observations and results for each vehicle will be individually described. Following this, the usability, strengths and weaknesses of the three designs will be quantitatively compared and specific lessons will be drawn. Finally, some conclusions with a view to improved vehicles and for future experimental field testing of pressurised rovers will be discussed.
Figure 1. The three prototypes at the MDRS station. Left to right: Everest, Ares and Aonia
The point of a pressurised rover is to provide safe and comfortable travel in support of scientific exploration of the Martian surface. This implies that a good design will have at least two crucial aspects. First, the vehicle should be well-engineered as a human tool - that is, it should be a good ergonomic fit to the human users. Therefore the usability of the vehicle in terms of human ergonomics should be measured in the context of such active science exploration work. This can be done using existing usability methods as described below. Secondly, the vehicle must properly support scientific exploration work - principally, it should help geologists and biologists to locate, access, observe, sample and assess the scientific potential of various sites. This aspect is more difficult to measure quantitatively. One can record work output during a mission, such as weight of samples taken, or number of photographs taken, but most scientists would argue that it is the quality of the data and their subsequent interpretation, rather than the quantity of material gathered, which represents good science. The true value of a given day's work may not become apparent until much later, after analysis and interpretation, and even then, this ultimately yields a qualitative assessment (e.g. acceptance/non-acceptance into a peer-reviewed journal).
For practical reasons, then, it is necessary to rely on the judgements of experienced field scientists about how well a rover supports their work, as they do it. Since these judgements would likely vary across individual scientists and different scientific tasks might impose different requirements on a rover, a comparison of rover designs should hold these variables constant by using the same crew and the same mission for each vehicle tested. A crew of three professionals consisting of one engineer/driver, one geologist and one biologist was recruited from the Ex-One rotation. Then a suitable simulated mission was prepared in advance. It had to be challenging enough to properly exercise the crew and the rovers, yet not so difficult as to run overtime and frustrate or endanger the crew. After consultation with the crew, a sample collecting mission to Lith canyon, 7km from the MDRS habitat, plus two stops on the way was created. The mission sequence was designed to repeat the tasks, usually three or more times. The Ex-One organising meetings encouraged careful advance planning of sorties away from the MDRS habitat such that multiple science goals could be accomplished. It was consistent with the goals of the experiment that the science crew (geologist and biologist) would perform real scientific work of their own while participating. This both actualised the human factors task context and helped the physical scientists carry out their research. It was, for instance, convenient to leave a microorganism-collecting trap at a site during one trial and collect it later in another rover.
Three approaches were taken to gathering the required information. First, each task component of the simulated mission was rated by each crew member using NASA's Task Load Index (TLX) . The TLX is a multidimensional scale which combines six factorial components of workload: mental demand, physical demand, temporal demand, own performance, effort and frustration. These components, weighted according to the relative significance they hold to the rater, quantify how hard an individual is working, mentally, physically and emotionally on a scale of 0-100. Since the TLX is commonly used in aerospace, commercial and military human factors testing, data on a wide range of tasks is available. helps determine whether the work expended within a given rover is comparable with working machines of similar complexity, though only under similar conditions of task difficulty and operator training. For example, with POPCORN, a challenging supervisory control simulation in which operators choose how best to respond to multiple task contingencies by executing procedures, the instrument typically returns weighted workload (WWL) scores in the range 47-73 [10, p.175], while in Boeing 757 simulations where experienced copilots monitored emerging alerts, scores in the range 28-43 were obtained . Under normal conditions, trained operators in well-engineered human-machine systems should return 'low' WWL scores, meaning in the lowest quartile.
Second, six common subsystem components for the prototype rovers were isolated: driver's/navigators station, kitchen, bathroom, crew table, laboratory, and airlock. A set of ten-point usability scales captured each crewmember's judgement about particular aspects of each subsystem, such as amount of space. Averages over all individuals who used a subsystem are reported as Mean Usability (MU). Each crewmember was also encouraged to report good and bad experiences with rover subsystems, both during and after the mission sequence. Third, as each rover mission unfolded, a chase crew of three observers in radio contact photographed, videotaped, audio-recorded, timed and wrote down observations about almost every aspect of the crews experiences. More observations were gathered at debriefings which followed each mission. Together with logs of long range communications to the habit, these recordings provided detail on specific incidents.
Because the analogue rovers are based on commercial vehicles, they can up to a point inherit some of the benefits of the well-established ergonomic design processes used by automobile makers. It is reasonable to expect that driving on Mars will be similar in many ways to off-road driving on Earth. In fact, driving a well-appointed, all-terrain camper would be good approximation. However, a pressurised rover is different in that it requires an environmentally-controlled cabin, an airlock, provision for spacesuits and probably specialised science equipment such as a sample transfer port, a glovebox, and science workstation. The Everest and Ares designs did aim to approximate these, but delivered with mixed degrees of success. At this stage, many items of equipment were rudimentary, such as the rover-to-habitat radio link, which consisted of short range UHF handheld units via a repeater for all trials, and which was less than perfectly reliable. Furthermore, most operational procedures were being tried for the first time, such as the crew size and composition, the driving speed, EVA times and communication protocols
The trials were carried out during a week of favourable weather in March, 2003. Crews were able to complete nearly all required measurements. An attempt to estimate non-endothermic physical activity of the crew with pedometers did not succeed due to instrument failure. The trials conformed to the mission plan in all but one instance, where a suit helmet accident in the Everest forced an alteration to made to the third science EVA and subsequent transfer to habitat. The TLX data collection was adjusted accordingly. Given the rudimentary facilities available in the vehicles, few differences were expected between certain subsystem ratings. For example, all navigation was performed using a handheld GPS unit, rather than a built-in navigation console.
Aonia. This is an unmodified Nissan 1998 Pathfinder SUV 4.6m long, 1.8m wide and 1.7m high. . Not part of the original test plan, this vehicle was included in response to a request from the University of Michigan team. Critics had argued that their building a special vehicle was unnecessary, since an ordinary SUV would serve. These arguments were attended by general questions about the minimum practical size for a pressurised vehicle. Relative to orthodox vehicle designs, could a smaller, less massive pressurised vehicle, with the associated payload transport savings, adequately serve? Would it be practical to depressurise the whole vehicle interior each EVA, eliminating the bulky and heavy airlock? Such a vehicle would be approximately analogous to the Apollo LEM.
In some ways the Aonia did not fit well into the experimental design: with no kitchen, bathroom or crew table, those elements could not be assessed. Having the most glass, it was favoured in terms of visibility (MU= 7.7) and lighting (MU=8.4), but although Aonia was comfortable to drive (MU=8.0) - probably on account of being the smallest, most conventional vehicle - it was not otherwise practical for this day-long sampling mission. Even over the mission duration of approximately 6 hours, the lack of toilet and washing facilities made working in the field uncomfortable; longer sorties would be out of the question1. Most noticeable was the discomfort of ingress/egress, which was rated on average over 4 points less useable than the other vehicles. Furthermore, in Figure 2 the TLX scores show that during ingress/egress the crew were loaded much higher in Aonia (mean WWL=68.4) than with ARES and Everest (mean WWL=45.9 and 45.3, respectively). The subjects were observed to have difficulty donning and doffing suit helmets and life support backpacks within the cabin. The low roof (172cm from ground), non-deformable seat backs and interior fitments substantially interfered with these operations drawing comments such as "...the conditions were physically uncomfortable, approaching painful" and "...so awkward that muscle strains and bruises are possible". It was not possible to move about inside the vehicle when sealed, and the engineer/driver was forced out of the shirt-sleeve environment during the science EVAs. Finally, with no laboratory, options for science work are limited to on-site sample collection and storage only. These constraints would not sufficiently distinguish a vehicle of this kind from an unpressurised rover to make it a viable option.
Figure 2. Mean TLX WWL scores for the six task components by vehicle design
Ares. This is a modified GMC Vandura 2500 light truck, 6.35m long, 2.41m wide and 2.84m high. Electrical power is provided from a 110V 100W inverter on the vehicle battery. Potable water is supplied from an internal 40 gallon tank; at present no recycling is enabled. Extra equipment includes two lateral sample transfer hatches at the rear sides, one of which opens into a custom-built glove box for samples, and a curtained-off RV shower/toilet cubicle.
Pilot/engineer observations agreed with preliminary assessments: the Ares handles well for a road truck with single driven axle, even on narrow, rocky or poorly finished roads (drivability MU of 7.6). The low sample transfer hatches, the natural lighting via portholes, and high visibility were all favourably commented upon by the crew. However with no spare tire, and no provision in case of breakdown, it is not safe to take off-road. There was no seatbelt on passenger side, and no seat for the third crewmember, which was a problem for this experiment. Design problems included a low transverse beam between the cabin and crew living space, lack of a step at the rear airlock exit, and lack of suit and sample storage.
The most important design issue to emerge from the Ares trial is that of airlock size and placement with respect to the sample glovebox. The original design for the Ares called for a central airlock as a wide lane between two lateral glovebox/science tables with a door opening into a bathroom (Figure 3a). The actual delivered design departed from this configuration in that a smaller 1.4m x 1.5m x 1.8m airlock with a side door was placed off-centre and the shower/toilet was shifted to a single cubicle in the midcabin (Figure 3b). This airlock was judged too small (MU=1.9 for amount of space and 3.2 for ease of use) and providing insufficient storage for spacesuit equipment. The configuration caused difficulty in moving through the narrow 40cm gap between the inner door and the glovebox. The crew recommended that the glovebox be either shifted forward and made smaller. The second glovebox is not needed and this space should be used for suit storage. Also, since the smaller airlock could not simultaneously hold all three crew, there was a delay of more than 10 minutes in transferring between the rover and the habitat, relative to the other vehicles. This consideration suggests that a pressurised docking tunnel between the rover and the habitat would be worthwhile.
Figure 3. Interior layout of Ares as originally planned (a) and actually delivered (b).
Arrow shows suggested shift of glovebox position, which might also be made smaller.
Although the Everest airlock was larger than that of Ares at 1.1m x 2.4m x 1.9m, and capable of holding three, it was also judged too small and in need of storage space (MU=5.1). The patterns of TLX workload factors and WWL totals during ingress/egress was not readily distinguishable between the two vehicles, yet the rated ease of access was actually lower for Everest (MU=2.9), possibly because of the severe ladder problem and because the airlocks were both crowded when filled to maximum occupancy.
Figure 4. Mean Usability (MU) ratings over all subsystem components of vehicle designs (0=useless, 10=ideal).
A wealth of information on what Martian rover operations might be like was gathered, from which three main observations will be considered here. First, the crew size and composition of one pilot/engineer, one biologist and one geologist seemed ideal, at least for what Muelbergers's group called 'intermediate-stage reconnaissance' - sorties to the limit of a single days' traverse . Longer traverses involving one or more night away (or 'extended EVAs') could also be possible with three. The pilot/engineer has a prevailing responsibility for effectively and safely transporting the science crew and is primarily concerned with rover systems, driving, navigating, communicating with the habitat and monitoring the science EVAs. This frees the attention of the science team for EVA operations, site prospecting, site assessment, sampling, photography, data recording and other field science activity. A crew of two would have to abandon the rover during EVAs, and divide their attention between two complex and possibly conflicting roles, while a larger crew could adversely deplete the compliment remaining at the habitat, impose a greater load on the rover's consumables, and create problems due to space restrictions, especially in the airlock.
Third, a significant operations management problem emerged during these and other rover sorties. Rover-habitat interactions were being handled for the first time, so some procedures were necessarily ad hoc. Long range communications were sufficiently unreliable that, when unforeseen circumstances cropped up in the field, it was generally necessary for the pilot and/or crew to decide on a course of action, though they were expected to report regularly to the habitat and seek advice, especially on safety matters. But when the rovers were close to the habitat, conflicts frequently arose between the rover crews and the habitat crews. This was particularly noticeable at dusk, when two or more parties returned the habitat at about the same time. This was observed to happen on at least four occasions. One incident will be expanded for illustration.
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1 Note, however, that qualitative trials using the Aonia rover the previous field season were much more successful, and included an overnight mission, with the crew sleeping in the vehicle The primary difference was only two crew took part in this mission. We were aware of this difference, however chose to use a three-person crew to maximise similarity with the other rover tests.