Birmingham-developed technology could open up the next frontier in space exploration by providing a means to control space robots sent to probe the surface of Mars, writes Anna Blackaby.

Academics from the University of Birmingham, led by Professor Bob Stone, are linking up with Russian space experts to apply the region’s expertise in creating computer simulations to robots exploring the Red Planet, tapping into gaming technology to do so.

Professor Valentin Shukshunov, president of The International Higher Education Academy of Sciences and Professor Peter Panfilov, from the Moscow State Institute of Electronics and Mathematics, are visiting the region to cement this relationship and sign a memorandum of understanding between the University of Birmingham and their organisations to enable student exchanges and a better sharing of information and research.

Prof Stone explained how Birmingham-developed computer simulation technology borrowed from the world of gaming could help with projects like Aurora, a European Space Agency initiative which sets out to explore the solar system over the next 30 years – starting with the robotic exploration of Mars as a precursor to the human mission.

He said: “My students have been involved in the simulation of space robots – they have finished a series of projects using games technology using a roving robot which can trundle over the surface of Mars.

“If you put a robot on the moon or Mars, the time delay between Earth and the planet is so huge that you can’t drive it as you would if it was in your back yard. You need some form of 3D visual representation to be able to control the robot.

“For example you would look at the surface of Mars from a bird’s-eye view and you would indicate where you want it to go and plan its path safely so it avoids all the big obstacles.”

Under the Aurora project, over the next 20 years robotic missions to Mars will prepare for the first human explorers on the planet by collecting as much scientific and engineering data as possible.

It is hoped these missions will help develop the technologies needed to put humans on Mars and return them safely back to Earth.

Prof Stone said Aurora offered exciting prospects for the West Midlands to get involved in space exploration.

“It’s very much a collaboration between industry and academia and the University of Birmingham is world leading, particularly in using games technology for simulation.”

Prof Stone has been working with the two Russian professors since the early 1990s when he helped them build the first ever virtual reality model of the Mir Space station.

The professors will also be treated to a demonstration of other West Midland-developed games-based simulation projects, including Kliper 2, space simulation software which helps schoolchildren learn basic mathematics and science concepts by recreating the excitement of space exploration.

Kliper 2 is an enhanced version of a game originally developed by one of Professor Stone’s final year students.

More recently, Digital Native Academy, a company based in Walsall, has built on the original Kliper game to produce a 3D web version aimed at schools where children get to simulate flying fly a Russian shuttle to its space station.

For over 17 years, Prof Stone and his team have worked closely with a team of professors at the Russian research institutes on opportunities in the fields of robotics, simulation, virtual reality and games-based technologies.