ATI Industrial Automation
Apex, NC
www.ati-ia.com

When it comes to space exploration, technological entrepreneur and philanthropist Elon Musk said, “You want to be inspired by things. You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great — and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

ATI Industrial Automation reached out to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with an offer to develop a custom force/torque sensor for Perseverance, the Mars 2020 mission rover. JPL is the leading U.S. research entity for robotic exploration of the solar system and manages NASA’s Deep Space Network, the hardest-working telecommunications system on the planet. The Mars 2020 mission is a collaborative effort undertaken by NASA, JPL, and other organizations commissioned to develop new technology to explore the surface of Mars.

The purpose of this particular mission, part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, is to learn about the Red Planet from firsthand experience. The project has a full agenda that includes searching for signs of ancient microbial life, categorizing the climate and geology of Mars to help determine the existence of inhabitable conditions, recovering samples from the planet’s surface, and arguably the most exciting objective of the mission: preparing for human exploration of Mars.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

The Perseverance rover is an unmanned robotic vehicle about the size of a car. During its exploration, it will collect and index small samples of rock and soil from prime locations. Once on board, sample tubes are cached inside the rover for eventual return to Earth.

It was clear that JPL needed an automated system for collecting and handling space material as well as moving it through the indexing process. To accomplish this, engineers developed the Adaptive Caching Assembly, an application that resembles a pick-and-place operation commonly found on a factory floor. Developing the systems and components that would perform in the mission would be a huge challenge to overcome.

The Sample Caching Subsystem consists of the Adaptive Caching Assembly, a large robotic arm with a drill, and an assortment of drill bits used to collect samples from designated areas on the surface of Mars. Once collected, a small robotic arm known as the Sample Handling Assembly (SHA), inspects and seals the samples in the rover’s onboard laboratory.

An ATI Force/Torque sensor integrated within the SHA end effector assembly provides enhanced responsiveness. With force sensing from ATI, the SHA is equipped to maneuver easily through the tight workspace, performing demanding tasks with accuracy.

This subsystem emulates automated processes found in the agriculture and manufacturing industries, where robots are used to make repetitive operations more precise. ATI’s Force/Torque sensors are often used with robots in these types of applications to enable greater process control and provide process verification such as indicating that a pin is inserted properly into a fixture. For the Mars 2020 mission, the sensors will encounter subzero surface temperatures and rugged terrain. The rover and its subsystems already survived the initial Atlas 5 rocket launch.

The Adaptive Caching Assembly system layout.

To deliver a robust force sensing solution for Perseverance, ATI adapted their Force/Torque sensor technology to offset the wide range of environmental conditions. The Space-Rated Force/Torque Sensor boasts a new design that provides signal redundancy and compensates for temperature variation, ensuring accurate resolution of forces and torques throughout the mission. This sensor is thermally calibrated and proven to operate optimally in a spectrum of extreme temperatures. To develop and test these breakthrough features, the ATI engineering team designed specialized calibration equipment and conducted 24-hour surveillance of product trials.

JPL scientists inspect the Adaptive Caching Assembly.

Components made of thermally stable, low-outgassing materials were added to fortify the sensor against the drastic environmental fluctuations. These materials also prevent cross-contamination of samples during the mission, which is one of the most important considerations of the Mars 2020 project.

Beyond space applications, ATI’s Space-Rated Force/ Torque sensor provides active force control for applications where repair opportunities are limited or in situations with high vacuum or extreme temperature variability. Through the project, ATI developed new technology that will be a part of NASA history and provide robust and reliable force sensing to applications on Earth. The temperature compensation, thermally stable components, and additional signal redundancy benefit users in industries such as radioactive decommissioning, oil and gas, metal casting and foundries, and other applications where conditions dictate continuous use in extreme environments.

After years of development, the highly anticipated Mars 2020 rover is on its way to Mars and is scheduled to arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021.

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Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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