U of Waterloo, Maplesoft build smart space rovers

Software vendor Maplesoft, the University of Waterloo and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are collaborating to build unmanned land rovers destined someday for planetary exploration.

The software from Maplesoft, called MapleSim, is being used to simulate the possible outcomes of a land rover moving from point A to B with respect to energy use, risk and safety. 

“If there are no roads, the number of paths you can take from one point to another can become infinite,” said Amir Khajepour, Canada research chair in mechatronic vehicle systems and professor of engineering in the mechanical and mechatronics engineering department at the University of Waterloo.

Ideally, the land rover should take the path that presents minimal risk, uses the least energy and is the safest, or perhaps a combination of all those, said Khajepour.

MapleSim lets them to answer such questions by allowing them to simulate and visualize all the possible combinations, said Khajepour.

With the MapleSim software, developers can create all the necessary equations for simulations that would otherwise have required intense labour especially for a space project, said Tom Lee, vice-president of applications engineering at Maplesoft, which is part of Waterloo Maple Inc.

“It’s like hiring a thousand mathematicians and locking them in a room for five months and having them do only pure mathematics,” said Lee.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based company, a spinoff from the University of Waterloo, has previously collaborated with the CSA on other projects. “This is the latest round,” said Lee, himself a three-time University of Waterloo graduate.

Lee said although it will be some years till these rovers actually end up in space missions, that task that is developing strategies based on varying conditions is requires significant management. 

“These missions are about a decade away but these are such complex devices that we need to do this now,” said Lee.

The most important aspect of using a software like MapleSim is it can produce very compact time-saving equations that must be run “thousands and thousands and thousands of times,” said Khajepour. “That has been very useful and helpful to us,” he said.

Today’s engineers are faced with new challenges that simply didn’t exist in the past, said Lee. The complexity of developing the latest technology, for instance a futuristic automobile design, entails an analysis of conditions that is “reaching literally into science fiction,” said Lee.

MapleSim is also applied to the area of robotics and automotive.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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