ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer) is a robotic vehicle which was developed by a team of companies and academic institutions. The team, led by JPL Robotics, includes NASA’s Johnson and Ames Centers, Stanford University, and Boeing. This six-legged prototype is capable of traversing moderate, fairly hard terrains and soft, extreme terrains. In a decade or so, if all goes according to plan, NASA will fly ATHLETE to the Moon, where it will perform a variety of tasks including carrying heavy cargo across great distances on its flat deck and manipulating and depositing payloads to just about anywhere. It is NASA’s hope that this robotic vehicle will one day be used as part of the Human Lunar Return Campaign.

The ATHLETE prototype is more than 4 meters in diameter, with a reach of more than 6 meters. The scientists estimate the final version, which will fly to the Moon, will be twice as large as the current model. The ATHLETE is equipped with 6-DOF legs, each ending with a small wheel and connected to a hexagonal frame. Each leg has a tool adaptor on it, allowing a variety of power tools to be connected and used with the leg. The hexagonal frame has several pairs of stereo cameras, which provide a stereoscopic (3D) panoramic view of the vehicle’s surroundings to its operator on Earth.

ATHLETE can connect to special-purpose devices, such as refueling stations and excavation implements. It also has a large payload capacity of 450 kg per vehicle, a payload that could increase considerably if a few ATHLETE vehicles docked together. ATHLETE is capable of climbing vertical steps of at least 70% of the maximum stowed dimension of the vehicle, and can climb slopes of 35 degrees on rock and 25 degrees on soft sand. Over Apollo-like terrain it can move at 10 km/h. The system is controlled via an immersive user interface.

The ATHLETE’s developers plan to further improve the vehicle and its capabilities. The planned improvements include an interaction option between suited astronauts and the vehicle via a “voice and gesture” command mode, reliable autonomous footfall placement on extreme terrain, and the use of a releasable grappling hook in order to traverse any terrain, even vertical rock faces.

“This vehicle is just a prototype, and it’s only about half a big as the one that we expect to fly in another decade or so. At that time we hope to land payloads as much as twenty tons. And with legs like these we can not only land them on the Moon, but then they’d have mobility and manipulation when they got there,” explains Brian Wilcox, Principal Investigator for ATHLETE.

TFOT recently covered NASA’s plans to develop a habitat on the Moon that will allow continued human presence on its surface. In addition, NASA scientists and engineers are already planning the launch vehicles that will be able to carry even larger telescopes into high orbit and eventually help humanity create a permanent outpost on the Moon. TFOT also reported on another JPL Robotics’ project – Lemur (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robots) – which was designed to address maintenance issues on spacecrafts and space stations.

More information about the ATHLETE can be found on JPL Robotics’ official website.