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Axel Rover Tethered Dynamics and Motion Planning on Extreme Planetary Terrain


Abad-Manterola, Pablo (2012) Axel Rover Tethered Dynamics and Motion Planning on Extreme Planetary Terrain. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/MPHD-PC75.


Some of the most appealing science targets for future exploration missions in our solar system lie in terrains that are inaccessible to state-of-the-art robotic rovers such as NASA's Opportunity, thereby precluding in situ analysis of these rich opportunities. Examples of potential high-yield science areas on Mars include young gullies on sloped terrains, exposed layers of bedrock in the Victoria Crater, sources of methane gas near Martian volcanic ranges, and stepped delta formations in heavily cratered regions. In addition, a recently discovered cryovolcano on Titan and frozen water near the south pole of our own Moon could provide a wealth of knowledge to any robotic explorer capable of accessing these regions.

To address the challenge of extreme terrain exploration, this dissertation presents the Axel rover, a two-wheeled tethered robot capable of rappelling down steep slopes and traversing rocky terrain. Axel is part of a family of reconfigurable rovers, which, when docked, form a four-wheeled vehicle nicknamed DuAxel. DuAxel provides untethered mobility to regions of extreme terrain and serves as an anchor support for a single Axel when it undocks and rappels into low-ground.

Axel's performance on extreme terrain is primarily governed by three key system components: wheel design, tether control, and intelligent planning around obstacles. Investigations in wheel design and optimizing for extreme terrain resulted in the development of grouser wheels. Experiments demonstrated that these grouser wheels were very effective at surmounting obstacles, climbing rocks up to 90% of the wheel diameter. Terramechanics models supported by experiments showed that these wheels would not sink excessively or become trapped in deformable terrain.

Predicting tether forces in different configurations is also essential to the rover's mobility. Providing power, communication, and mobility forces, the tether is Axel's lifeline while it rappels steep slopes, and a cut, abraded, or ruptured tether would result in an untimely end to the rover's mission. Understanding tether forces are therefore paramount, and this thesis both models and measures tension forces to predict and avoid high-stress scenarios.

Finally, incorporating autonomy into Axel is a unique challenge due to the complications that arise during tether management. Without intelligent planning, rappelling systems can easily become entangled around obstacles and suffer catastrophic failures. This motivates the development of a novel tethered planning algorithm, presented in this thesis, which is unique for rappelling systems.

Recent field experiments in natural extreme terrains on Earth demonstrate the Axel rover's potential as a candidate for future space operations. Both DuAxel and its rappelling counterpart are rigorously tested on a 20 meter escarpment and in the Arizona desert. Through analysis and experiments, this thesis provides the framework for a new generation of robotic explorers capable of accessing extreme planetary regions and potentially providing clues for life beyond Earth.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Axel Rover, Rappelling, Tether, Tethered, Motion Planning, Extreme Terrain, Steep Slopes, Deformable Terrain
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Mechanical Engineering
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Burdick, Joel Wakeman
Thesis Committee:
  • Burdick, Joel Wakeman (chair)
  • Hunt, Melany L.
  • Murray, Richard M.
  • Dabiri, John O.
  • Nesnas, Issa A.
Defense Date:8 July 2011
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:08312011-003358925
Persistent URL:
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Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:6636
Deposited By: Pablo Abad-Manterola
Deposited On:19 Oct 2011 18:53
Last Modified:03 Oct 2019 23:53

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