We’ve sent rovers to far-off planets–but we’ve left many miles of our own planet unexplored.
Enter the Turtle rover, a mobile robot sturdy enough to explore caves, ruins, and far-flung corners of our home planet. Aimed at makers and drone enthusiasts as well as scientists and researchers, the 18-pound, waterproof Earth rover has a robotic arm and can be operated from a distance of 220 yards away–a little less than the length of two football fields.
The Turtle is the first product of the Polish startup Kell Ideas. The CEO and cofounder Szymon Dzwonczyk has been designing prototype Mars rovers since 2012, when he and his team attended the Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland. After coming in second place in the world in 2013’s international University Rover Challenge, the team continued to build more rover prototypes. They began working with the European Space Agency, the German Aerospace Center, and the Swedish Space Corporation, launching two projects into orbit. One was a mobile laboratory designed to study the decay of chlorofluorocarbons; for the other, Dzwonczyk and his fellow researchers helped with design and manufacturing for a study on space mining. But building rovers was always their passion, and Dzwonczyk and his three cofounders–Julia Marek, Aleksander Dziopa, and Marcin Twardak–started Kell Ideas as a way to bring space rovers down to earth.
The team sees people using the Turtle–which is a smaller, simplified version of the Mars-ready rover prototypes they’ve built in the past–to explore, photograph, and map natural areas. That could be in a scientific, research capacity, or it could be just for fun. The company’s closest competition is heavy-duty remote control cars, but these usually aren’t waterproof, nor are they durable. Dzwonczyk and his team hope to capture part of the drone market, since drones can’t fly in small, enclosed spaces, but they also envision industrial applications down the line. The Turtle’s software and hardware are open source; as a result, Dzwonczyk believes it will be an ideal vehicle to test out sensors and software for self-driving cars.
The design of the Turtle is an ode to Dzwonczyk’s roots in the space industry. Dzwonczyk, who led the design for Turtle, says he used the same type of suspension that NASA used for its Mars rover Curiosity, a car-sized rover designed to explore a giant crater on the red planet’s surface, so that the much smaller robot can traverse similarly rocky terrain. “That’s why this little robot can overcome big obstacles–and it looks great when it does,” he says. The robot itself is made of stainless steel and aluminum so that it’ll survive a fall of 6.5 feet. Its large wheels can go over obstacles that are about six inches tall.
Dzwonczyk wants the Turtle to be more than just a vehicle to put a camera in small, dark places. Users can also attach cameras, sensors like lidar to capture 3D maps of the environment around the rover, and stereo vision to capture images. Dzwonczyk has used the Turtle to explore some of the ruins around the city of Wroclaw, including abandoned warehouses, breweries, and old palaces.
Dzwonczyk and his team are launching the Turtle on Kickstarter in hopes that they can build a community of users who’ll tinker with the rover and provide feedback on the design. They currently have a working prototype, and plan to use the Kickstarter money to begin manufacturing and shipping.
But the Turtle has a bigger role to play than just exploring unseen corners of the Earth. Earlier prototypes are being used in studies like the Poland Mars Analogue Simulation, where scientists research what human settlement on Mars might look like–and Turtle rovers stand in for their Martian relatives.