Tiny bulldozer rovers may some day dish up the dirt and
pack it in on Mars. The scoop-and-dump design of a prototype
bulldozer rover being developed by NASA engineers mimics that
of a bulldozer and dump truck.

Unlike a life-size bulldozer and dump truck, which can weigh
several thousand pounds, these rovers are lightweight,
intelligent and can work without an operator at the wheel. Yet
they have the same capabilities, relative to their size, as
their heavy-duty counterparts.

Robotics engineers think the basic research on these
bulldozing rovers may support future missions to look for life
or those to sustain a human presence.

“If water sources, such as hot springs, layers of ice or
groundwater reservoirs are discovered on Mars, a network of
these rovers could conduct scientific investigation and
excavate the site piece-by-piece, just as humans would on an
archeological dig,” said Brian Wilcox, supervisor of the
Robotic Vehicles Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Pasadena, Calif. “Rovers like these may also play a role in
establishing a space outpost for eventual human occupancy.
They may be used to create buried habitats or utility trenches
and to excavate resources to support life.

“We think a greater amount of terrain can be excavated if the
workload is shared among several smaller vehicles. Smaller
solar powered vehicles have a higher power-to-weight ratio
than bigger vehicles, yet together can perform the same tasks
as a large vehicle,” said Wilcox.

Weighing approximately 3.6 kilograms (8 pounds), the bulldozer
rovers have arms with a tiny scoop to dig up and dump the soil
into an overhead bucket. They use their arms to right
themselves if they fall over. Working in groups, they will
create a virtual communications network with a central control
tower, equipped with stereo cameras that will provide a
360-degree view of the terrain. A reflector will unfurl from
the tower and divert the sun’s energy to bulldozer rovers that
are down a hole or ditch.

The bulldozer rovers share the same processor and software as
the nanorover originally designed to fly on a Japanese
asteroid mission. Four prototypes are working at this time.
Engineers are working to determine the optimum size of the
rovers for excavation tasks. They expect to have several more
working prototypes by the end of the year.

“When people hear about the work we do, they sometimes think
we are just talking science fiction,” said Wayne Schober,
manager for advanced robotics surface systems at JPL. “We
worked on some of the most advanced robotic vehicle designs of
the mid-1980s, such as those that enabled the two-armed
coordinated robots for the International Space Station, the
Mars Pathfinder Rover and the rovers about to explore Mars. We
are not all fun and games. We mean business.”

These researchers are working on the next generation of air,
surface and subsurface vehicles for exploration of the
planets, including Mars and Venus, Jupiter’s moon Europa and
Saturn’s largest moon Titan. The vehicles include a tumbleweed
ball, which can blow with the wind; blimps; and all-terrain
rovers, which can traverse down steep hills and gullies.

NASA’s Cross Enterprise Technology Development Program
provided funding for this work

. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages
JPL for NASA. JPL is the lead American center for robotic
exploration of the solar system.