When you build unmanned, all-terrain vehicles, it’s the kind of call you dream of receiving.
“Hello, this is NASA. We’d like your help to build a rover we want to send to the moons. Are you in?” (Or, words to that effect.)
An emphatic YES was the answer given by Ontario Drive and Gear Ltd. Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Peter Visscher. “At first, we were like – whoa, it’s NASA,” he laughs. “It was very exciting, and we’ve built some great relationships over the years. Just like us, they are very passionate people who love what they do.”
ODG’s Gear Division specializes in world-class quality gear and transmissions. Using the latest technology, their abilities range from custom design to manufacture, assembly, and in-house testing.
They are also the builders of the ARGO, a popular amphibious, all-terrain vehicle (ATV). But, it was their expertise in the manufacturing of various robotic platforms that lead to contact with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 2008, and a potential journey to the moon with the design of lunar rover prototypes.
The Force is strong with this one
The latest prototype, officially called the Lunar Rover Platform and Drivetrain Prototype or LRPDP, is also known by insiders by it’s nickname: The Lunar Rover Drivetrain Vacuum and Dust-Rated, or LRD VaDR.
“We’re nerds”, chuckles Visscher.
In contrast to the fun of building a lunar rover is the significance of the task the LRPDP will be performing.
“Since the beginning of our project, we’ve been working with a group called Resource Prospector (formerly Resolve) and their sole purpose is to look for water on the moon,” he says. “The rover is designed to function on the lunar surface, equipped with a drill and a soil analysis array that can analyze and determine how much water is in the moon’s soil, what form it’s in, and if we’ll be able to return one day to harvest it.”
Because the lunar environment is so extreme, every piece fabricated to function on the rover is unique and light. “We use materials like titanium or high-grade aluminum and optimize every piece because weight is a big factor in our overall strategy. Every gram we save can be applied elsewhere,” says Visscher. “For example: The lunar prototype wheels can’t be made of rubber. Not only is rubber heavy, but also it would degrade on the moon. On the LRPDP, they are made of a special, flexible metal.”
ODG’s current lunar rover prototype weighs a slim 112 kilograms.
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Canada in space
Governments have largely assumed the expense and risk of space exploration in partnership with companies that receive contracts to design and manufacture space assets for public and private use. In Canada, the result has been the creation of a $2.8 billion space industry that employs almost 7,000 workers across the country. It generates half of its revenue from sales abroad, making it one of the most export-oriented space sectors in the world.
Canada has a long history of space exploration that includes the famous Apollo 11 lunar mission that enabled humans to walk on the moon. “The first legs on the moons surface were actually Canadian,” smiles Erick Dupuis, director of Space Exploration Development with the CSA. “The landing gear on the Apollo lunar module used a system designed by Canada’s Héroux-Devtek.”
In cooperation with private enterprise, the CSA continues Canada’s tradition of space exploration. “ODG’s expertise in creating ‘terrestrial’ all-terrain vehicles really set them apart from the other contractors in the competition to build the lunar rover prototype,” says Dupuis, who feels it’s important for all Canadians to look to the stars. “I love my home planet, and the more we understand about what’s happening in space, the better we understand the processes on earth and ultimately our place in the universe.”
The CSA is also currently working with NASA on Osiris Rex, the first US mission to return a sample from an asteroid to Earth and the first time the CSA is part of an international sample-return mission.
Down to earth
As off-planet technologies are developed, ODG can make the same designs work on rovers for more terrestrial applications.
“We’re really at the infancy of unmanned ground vehicles,” mentions ODG Sales Manager, Jason Schieb. “We feel that we’re about 5-6 years behind the UAV market where there is a huge acceptance of the technology for use in sectors like agriculture as well as applications in security/military.”
In the next five years, Scheib predicts rapid growth in the autonomous ground vehicle industry. “We talk about autonomous resupply all the time.” He says, ”In scenarios like disaster relief, extreme areas, over difficult terrain – anywhere that requires equipment or supplies where conditions are too dangerous for human intervention, that’s where autonomous vehicles confirm their value.”
ODG’s autonomous vehicles can carry 1,000 pounds of payload, while quietly navigating demanding topography. “The real challenge has been acceptance of the technology,” mentions Scheib. “But we are gaining momentum as various industries and agencies see the numerous applications and realize the immense capabilities of this technology.”