A robotic rover rolled onto the stage at last year’s Amazon Web Services re:Invent conference. It had six wheels, a black metal frame and a small red beanie sitting atop it. Then it introduced itself.
“I am JPL’s open-source rover,” the machine said in the serious, female voice we’ve come to expect from virtual assistants. “Today, I will be trying to find life on this stage just like JPL does every day on Mars.”
It rolled over to a wall built of cinder blocks and determined it could not go any farther, so it deployed a smaller robot that scaled the wall and used a camera to determine that there might be life on the other side. The rover then sent two small Pop-Up Flat-Folding Explorer Robots (PUFFERs) to go under the wall in search of life.
“PUFFER has discovered something interesting,” the rover said. “Analyzing image. Martian detected.”
The image was a photo of Matt Damon from the movie “The Martian.”
Such ambassadorial show-and-tell was the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s original motivation for developing the educational rover, or ROV-E. The idea quickly evolved, however, into creating an open-source project so that high school science classes and others interested in engineering could build the robots themselves.
“We wanted to build it from commercially available, off-the-shelf parts so that any hobbyist” or high school student could build it, said Tom Soderstrom, JPL’s chief technology and innovation officer.
The rover was designed by two JPL interns and an early-career employee, and at least three high schools have already built their own and plan to integrate the robots into their engineering curriculums.
JPL created a build list for the robot knowing that, “if it wasn’t good enough, we would have been overwhelmed with requests for support,” Soderstrom said. The lab then beta-tested the list with a couple of high schools before releasing it.
Like any open-source project, the rover is designed to evolve. The conference demonstration illustrated the potential of internet-of-things applications, but Soderstrom said robotic arms and advanced sensors are also possibilities.
“It became a very interesting capability of just using this open-source rover as the platform for innovation and building on top of it very quickly,” he added.