Astrobotic Technology and the SETI Institute have announced the successful mapping in 3D of the interior of an icy lava tube in Iceland using a LiDAR-equipped drone.
The team was investigating the Lofthellir Lava Tube Ice Cave in the remote Myvatn region of Iceland and used the drone to document the lava tube’s shape and extent, history of rock falls, and spectacular ice formations.
Pascal Lee, SETI Institute planetary scientist, said: “We went to Iceland to study a lava tube with massive amounts of ice inside it to understand better both the potential hazards and opportunities presented by the many lava caves we hope to explore on the Moon and Mars. One promising way to explore them is with drones.”
Astrobotic is the private space company developing the drone-based LiDAR mapping technology.
Andrew Horchler, director of future missions and technology at Astrobotic, said: “Small free-flying spacecraft might be the ideal robotic platform for the exploration of lava tubes on Earth, the Moon, and Mars for the simple reason that they would not need to come in direct contact with any of the rough and potentially unstable surfaces found inside caves and lava tubes.
“Nimble drones could enter, map, and exit caves quickly, returning from the darkness to send data back to Earth, return a sample to the surface, recharge and refuel.”
The mission of the terrestrial drone deployed at the Lofthellir Ice Cave focused on validating the idea of using a drone-equipped LiDAR to safely navigate and accurately map rock and ice inside a dark lava tube in the absence of GPS or any prior map.
Under a research contract with NASA, Astrobotic has developed a custom navigation software product, known as AstroNav, to give drones and small free-flying spacecraft the ability to autonomously explore and map subterranean environments.
AstroNav employs both stereo vision and LiDAR, works without GPS or previously stored maps and can operate in real-time while a novel environment is explored at a high rate of speed.
Lee said: “The Astrobotic drone and LiDAR performed exactly as we had hoped, and was able to help us map the Lofthellir Lava Tube in 3D within minutes”
“We now have a highly accurate model of the shape and dimensions of the cave, and of the configuration of its many rocky and icy features, such as rock falls, ice columns, and micro-glaciers.”
Horchler added: “More development work will be needed to create a system that’s ready for the Moon or Mars, but the study of this icy lava tube is an important first step for us.”