Press Release

Carnegie Mellon’s solar powered robot demonstrates concept that could lead to long-term exploration of planets and moons

By SpaceRef Editor
August 2, 2001
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A prototype, solar-powered robot, developed with support from NASA
by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, has demonstrated a
concept that could pave the way for future long-term robotic exploration of distant
planets and moons. Late last month, the robot, named Hyperion, successfully
completed field experiments on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic. It tested the
concept of Sun-Synchronous Navigation, a technique that involves tracking the sun
while exploring terrain. Hyperion performed navigation experiments during a period of
24-hour sunlight, exploring the terrain it encountered while simultaneously monitoring
its solar panels to ensure that they collected enough energy to complete each
segment of its planned traverse. During the initial experiment on July 19, Hyperion
traveled 6.1 kilometers and made history by circumnavigating the Von Braun Planitia,
an area near Devon Island’s Haughton Crater. The crater is the subject of ongoing
study by the NASA Haughton-Mars Project because of its apparent similarity to the
terrain on Mars. According to project manager David Wettergreen, a Robotics Institute
research scientist, about 95 percent of the circuit was completed autonomously, with
the remainder under remote supervision. The experiment began and ended with the
robot’s batteries fully charged and ready to continue operation.

As it encountered the unknown terrain, Hyperion sometimes fell behind its timetable
for operation, but each time it caught up when it emerged into a more easily navigable
region. “The ability of the robot’s perception and navigation system to find routes was
very impressive,” said Wettergreen. “Analysis of telemetry recorded from Hyperion will
reveal the thousands of obstacles it detected and evaluated, the tens of thousands of
steering corrections and the statistics of planned versus actual distance and power.
Qualitatively, Hyperion wiggled through some pretty tight spots.”

In the extended experiment, which ended July 22, Hyperion covered more distance-9.1
kilometers, traveled through rougher terrain, including scree slopes and mud flats,
and was challenged with a mission plan that at times put desired goal locations in
conflict with the position of the sun.

Wettergreen said that the extended experiment intentionally pushed the limits of
Hyperion’s capability to find where further research is necessary. In this experiment,
Hyperion had greater difficulty due to communication drop-outs, areas of extremely
ruggedterrain, and dazzling of its stereo cameras by the sun. In the end, however, it
arrived at its destination on schedule with charged batteries.

In only one instance was manual intervention required to correct a steering problem.
“There is more work to do to move new technologies from research into development,
but the fundamental ideas have been proven,” Wettergreen says.

Wettergreen and six colleagues, including graduate students and Robotics Institute
engineers, left for Devon Island on July 3. They began to work with Hyperion building
up toward the main experiments that were scheduled for July 10. But the time they had
was decreased by bad weather and more snow than they had expected during this
time of year. They had a narrow window of time to complete their work- -after the snow
has melted in mid-July and when the sun begins to drop below the hills toward the
end of the month.

“The technology is a grand leap for planetary exploration,” said William “Red”
Whittaker, the Fredkin research professor in the Robotics Institute and principal
investigator of the Hyperion project.

Wettergreen emphasized that Hyperion is a concept vehicle designed to operate only
on earth. The objective is to develop technologies, like reasoning about terrain,
sunlight and power, that are broadly applicable to robotic explorers but specifically
tailored robots that could operate at the poles of the moon or in the polar regions of


For more detailed information about Hyperion, and the sun-synchronous navigation
experiments successfully performed in the Canadian Arctic, see For more information on the NASA Haughton-Mars
project, see

Additional Contacts:

Chriss Swaney


SpaceRef staff editor.