Roving the bottom of the globe

TI AvatarIt is the most isolated, desolate place in the world. More than 54 million square miles of solid ice and rocks, with some of the coldest temperatures and harshest weather on Earth. And our technology is going there.

Next winter, a team of students from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland plan to deploy Octanis 1, a reusable, autonomous, solar powered, satellite-controlled and open source rover onto the frigid landscapes of Antarctica. The rover will go where few people or machines have ever gone before, gathering useful data as a scientific measurement instrument for scientists.

“We really want to get this right. We don’t want to build a toy. We want to create a handy instrument that can be easily used not just by engineers, but by biologists, chemists and others to help them advance their research,” said Sam Sulaimanov, the Octanis 1 Mission Lead.

The project came about nearly 18 months ago when one of Sam’s fellow students mentioned that the Ecuadorian Base opened a competition to create anything that would be useful and interesting for scientists at the Antarctic base. That’s when Sam and a small group of students decided to build a data-collecting rover using a variety of sensors.

From the beginning, the team made sure the scientific instrument was 100 percent open source so others could reproduce the device for their own uses.

“It is always in our head to make everything open source, to enable an educational experience for students while other engineers can review and improve the software to make our rover better,” Sam said.

TI AvatarAs if inventing an open source rover to survive subzero temperatures and blizzards wasn’t enough of a challenge, the team also wanted to keep costs down, spending less than $1,000 on the entire scientific instrument. Sam said they had to choose unconventional but more affordable parts, including the TI MSP432TM microcontroller (MCU) LaunchPad™ development kit and integrating the TI MSP432 MCU into their final board.

TI Avatar“The TI LaunchPad™ development kit’s key advantages are the affordability, the accelerated development time and its low power consumption,” said Electronic Mission Specialist Raffael Tschui. “Since the rover runs exclusively with solar power in Antarctica, it needs to survive with minimum power consumption if the weather is bad, and that’s why a low-power MCU is so important.”

Budget constraints recently resulted in the cancellation of the Ecuadorian competition, but the team continued to push forward with their project, applying for other Antarctia missions this upcoming winter. Once deployed on a new mission, the rover will perform sample collection on its own in Antarctica, controlled by satellite but unable to receive direct human aid while out in the field. As a result, the rover requires a self-sufficient system with a small but powerful “brain” – the MSP432 MCU.

“It is extremely fascinating and rewarding to see how your product can be used in such an inspiring project, to explore the Earth’s final frontier.” said Dung Dang, the lead application engineer for MSP432 MCU who has followed this project closely. “The MSP432 MCU offers a perfect combination of low-power and performance. It is responsible for controlling motors, driving the rover, talking to the sensors and collecting data, all the while managing the power system and surviving solely off the power from the solar panels on the rover.”

For the MSP432 MCU to handle all those responsibilities and remain open source, it runs on TI’s real-time operating system (TI-RTOS). This software enables the Octanis team developer to easily divide the processing power of the MCU to process time-critical tasks first before managing more routine responsibilities. As Raffael put it, “You don’t have to do very much to get it to run.”

“One of the cool things about embedded software is to see the innovative applications and strange places where TI-RTOS is used,” said TI-RTOS product manager Nick Lethaby.

The Octanis 1 program has a special place in the heart of TI E2E™ online community engagement manager Blake Ethridge. Blake and his colleagues have scoured the Internet looking for unique LaunchPad kit applications, finding them on every continent in the world with one exception – Antarctica.

TI AvatarOne day a couple of months ago, Blake and Dung came across the Octanis 1 program while on Twitter, and found the long-awaited project.

“When you ‘dare to dream’ and imagine innovation, a project just like this taps into that. It will be out there in Antarctica, on its own without human interaction, and it just stirs the imagination of engineers in a completely different way,” Blake said.

But the Octanis 1 team has a lot of work ahead of them before their imaginative rover heads to the bottom of the globe. They are analyzing every screw and 3-D printed part, reviewing the code line-by-line and testing everything from the insulation to keep the electronics warm to the motors that must power through the glacial terrain.

“We really always feel as if we are in the Apollo 13 mission, where ‘failure is not an option.’ We will do everything that we can to really get this going and succeed,” Sam said.

To learn more about the Octanis 1 mission, click here.

To watch a webinar about the Octanis 1 mission, click here.

To learn more about the MSP432 ARM® Cortex®-M4F-based family of products, click here.

To learn more about TI’s real-time operating system (TI-RTOS) for microcontrollers, click here.

To learn more about TI LaunchPad™ development kits, click here.