The Mars Rover being built by Airbus Defence & Space will be able to answer questions about whether life existed on Mars and more importantly whether the red planet can sustain life in the future.


Van Odedra and Abbie Hutty could be names from a George Lucas Science fiction film. High Flyer talked to 54 year old Van Odedra, the ExoMars Rover Project Manager and 27-year-old spacecraft structures engineer Abbie Hutty, two individuals working on Airbus Defence & Space’s contribution to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars Programme. Science Fact not Fiction.

Creativity and Curiosity: Building the Mars Rover for the ESA ExoMars Programme

HF: What is the ExoMars programme and what is Airbus Defence & Space’s role in it?

VO: ExoMars is a flagship ESA programme comprising two missions to the red planet in 2016 and 2018 designed to determine conclusively whether life ever existed or is still active on Mars as this is one of the principal outstanding scientific questions of our time! ; The mission will vastly increase our knowledge of the Martian environment including its geochemistry, geophysics, water distribution and identify surface hazards for future human exploration endeavours. The programme will also demonstrate key technologies for entry, descent, landing, drilling and roving on the martian surface. Airbus Defence and Space in the UK is proud to have been selected to lead the design, development and build of the 1st European Rover Vehicle. The recent approval of the contract proposal for the Exo Mars 2016 and 2018 Missions by ESA has allowed the project to proceed with System Engineering and industrialisation activities to kick off the remaining suppliers. In parallel, the project is preparing the proposal for a full contract submission in July 2014.The project team based in Stevenage in the UK continues to ramp up in line with the current activities and for a smooth transition to the full build phase from July 2014.The new Mars yard (a testing facility designed to simulate the Martian terrain has recently been commissioned to allow early bread boards to be used to characterise and demonstrate the drive and autonomous navigation systems of the Rover on representative terrain. A dedicated Bio Clean Room will also be built in Stevenage where the flight Rover will be built and tested from next year. The clean room will require very stringent processes to be followed by all personnel to ensure cleanliness on molecular and particulate contamination are satisfied.


HF: The Mars Rover is the focal point of the second ExoMars mission in 2018. What are the issues faced in designing and building the six-wheeled vehicle?

VO: The key parameters to be taken in to account were; The design has to consider the high mechanical loads during launch, the high radiation levels during the long cruise phase and the high shock loads expected during landing. After landing, the Rover has to survive the extremely cold temperatures during Martian nights with limited power available from the solar panels and the battery. The severe dust storms on Mars also need to be considered in the design. In addition to the above design drivers, the Rover has to comply with very challenging mass and volume constraints imposed by the launcher. Every single item of Rover (down to last washer) has to be accounted for and justified.


HF: How were you able to guarantee that enough solar energy was available for the Rover for the duration of the mission?

VO: Although the solar panels will be slightly over sized, careful management of power is critical for Rover Vehicle operations and safety. During daylight hours when the Rover is stationary, the available solar power will be maximised by tilting the secondary solar panels. During peak periods of operational demands, the battery will supplement the power available from the solar panels but the state of charge will be managed to ensure it is fully recharged before each night. The on-board software will ensure that all nonessential equipment is switched off when the power from the solar array/battery is running low. At night-time the Rover will go into low power mode to ensure only the critical platform equipment and heaters are left on. Of course all the equipment on board has to be designed to ensure it consumes minimum power.


HF: How do you maintain communication with the Rover, as a direct link is impossible?

VO: Communications with the Rover will be limited to twice a day via the TGO (Trace Gas Orbiter which is part of the Exo 2016 mission) or using one of the NASA orbiters. These contacts will be limited to 15 minutes each to allow Housekeeping and Science data to be sent back to ROCC (Rover Operation Control Centre). However the Rover is fundamentally designed for autonomous operation.


HF: Landing is obviously a critical phase of any such operation. Who is responsible for this stage of the mission?

VO: The Entry Descent and Landing System will be managed by the Russians and will include a 2-stage parachute deployment during final entry and descent and then operation of retro thrusters prior to landing of the Descent Module.


HF: Which parameters determined the choice of the landing site?

VO: A dedicated international working group has been set up by ESA to evaluate suitable landing sites for the mission within a latitude range of 250°N and 50°S. The final choice of the site will be based on a number of parameters including science potential, Comms visibility and the ability of the Rover drive system to negotiate the chosen terrain.

Creativity and Curiosity: Building the Mars Rover for the ESA ExoMars Programme

HF: One of the mission’s key objectives is the search both for existing life forms and proof that life once existed on the planet. What determined the choice of landing site where potentially both questions could be answered?

VO: The choice of the landing site will consider science data available from previous missions and from the orbiter including water content and levels of hydrogen and methane detected in the atmosphere.


HF: What are the main differences between earlier missions and ExoMars?

VO: The Exo Mars mission will not only have a complex drill capable of recovering samples from depths of 2 meters, it will also have sophisticated sample preparation and analysis instruments to perform the investigation in-situ. The other important feature of the Mars Rover is the more efficient autonomous navigation system which is capable of compensating for any disturbances as it drives to its chosen destination. A variety of instruments including panoramic cameras, ground penetrating radar and an organic molecule analyser to support the scientific objectives are able to provide much better results compared to an orbiting spacecraft.

HF: How much terrain will the mission be able to cover on the planet’s surface?

VO: The Rover is expected to cover approximately 4 Km of the Mars terrain during its nominal lifetime of 218 Sols (Martian days). The rover’s six-wheel drive system will enable it to turn within its own length. Powerful on-board processors will enable it to plan its own routes, assessing whether it can climb over obstacles or drive around them.

HF: How do you guarantee that the Rover can still operate even if direct contact from Earth is lost?

VO: The Rover fail-safe design in the event of loss of contact from earth is to transition into a state where all instruments and non-essential platform equipment are switched off in order to conserve power. The on board UHF transceiver is configured to standby mode until a “wake” signal is received via the orbiter. The Rover can stay in this safe configuration for up to 30 days without contact from Ground.

HF: What were the biggest obstacles you encountered in planning the mission?

VO: A number of “stop starts” in the past resulted in the loss of team continuity and inefficient planning. The Exo Mars programme also had to be restructured after the original ESA collaboration with NASA was cancelled in 2011 and a new partnership agreement was established in 2013 with ROSCOMOS in Russia. We have since been able to maintain the challenging schedule for the 2018 launch mission. The main technical challenges now are to ensure that the new industrial structure and cooperation with Russian provided Descent Module allow the key interfaces assumed in the Rover design to be maintained. The Technology for autonomous navigation was also immature in Europe and this required a lot of early development work with Bread Boards to demonstrate the maturity required before full development. The Rover has recently been through a successful Design review and this baseline is now progressing through to the main implementation phase. With the recent endorsement of the programme by ESA, the project is now able to begin all the industrialisation activities to secure key suppliers and progress the engineering activities in to the next phase.

HF: You have told us a lot about “your baby” What about your people?

VO: I suppose I am the final hurdle when people apply to work on a project like this. We are looking for more than just technically skilled people. They have to be fast learners and be able to work as part of big team. The complex design of the Rover requires a variety of different skills to engineer the optimum solution and this sometimes requires compromises to be agreed as a team! I never cease to be amazed at the dedication of new members and how quickly they get up to speed. Nine to fivers don’t stand a chance in this business. The average age of my team is between 28 and 35 (i.e. they’re quite young). This is a unique project with virtually no references but with very demanding goals. It allows our engineers to start with a fresh piece of paper and be creative to find solutions to problems without previous reference. Cultural diversity plays an important role too. I was thirteen when my parents moved to the UK so I understand the challenges. I think in my job it is crucial to appreciate peoples’ diversity, but also that they all care passionately about the success of the project. This isn’t a business generating instant results - we have to be in it for the long term. You have to be a special kind of person to be able to work in this environment.

Creativity and Curiosity: Building the Mars Rover for the ESA ExoMars Programme

Interview with spacecraft structural engineer Abigail Hutty

Double engineering award winner Abbie Hutty has become something of a celebrity in the United Kingdom. Based at Airbus Defence & Space’s facility in Stevenage, Abbie was accepted onto the Astrium Graduate programme in 2010 before joining the ExoMars Rover project in 2012. She is the technical authority for design and development work being conducted on the Mars Rover vehicle itself working very closely with other specialists on the project from Stress, the Design Office and materials and processes to come up with a fully functioning design. Additionally she is also the technical contact for the subcontractors manufacturing the rover body, the service module which houses all the equipment mounted on the rover and the solar array panels. As well as having an unusual engineering job, Abbie won both the Young Woman Engineer Award of the year from the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and the Young member of the year award 2013 from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). Despite being catapulted into the media limelight with appearances on national television and interview requests from all over, the likeable 27 year old has kept her feet on the ground and is above all passionate about space.

HF: The world is crying out for engineers – how and why did you become one?

AH: I love creating things, and that’s precisely what engineering is. I think there is a perception in the UK that engineers are people who fix things rather than design things. Many children say they want to be “Inventors” when they are older, but they do not realise that in reality, the role they are interested in is what we call “Engineering”. My favourite subjects at school were design technology and art, but I was quite good at maths and physics. I was first introduced to the idea of becoming an engineer by my physics teacher, who explained engineering to me and showed me that it combined both creativity and the challenge of a technical element.

HF: What is it about your job that is different?

AH: I love being able to have an idea, develop that concept in my mind, and then convey it to other people. Engineering is also about solving problems and constantly improving on existing technologies, so there is always a new challenge to tackle. Another unexpected aspect of the job is that it is very social. Engineers are often caricatured as being anti-social or geeks, but we work very closely in teams and have to work collaboratively to makes our projects successful.

HF: How did the space thing happen?

AH: One of the first things that inspired me to consider engineering as a career was space. While I was at school, I heard about the Beagle II mission to Mars, and that it was to be built in the UK. Knowing that such exciting projects were going on in the UK really made me believe that this was the field I wanted to go into. I set my sights firmly on Space after doing a placement year at Surrey Satellite Technology as part of my degree, and have worked on some very exciting projects since. A couple of years ago though I heard about an opportunity to work on the Rover project and of course I couldn’t let that pass me by! I think people find it quite easy to relate to a Mars Rover Project- Mars is both tangible and inspirational.

HF: Anyone talking to you can sense your commitment - what do you think is crucial for a would-be engineer?

AH: Engineering is all about creatively finding solutions to challenges. You need to keep a sense of curiosity and be inspired to constantly improve things.

Safety is good business - Developing ROPS

39-year-old Airbus Corporate Innovation Senior Director Fabrice Villaumé is a game changer pure and simple. High Flyer caught him over breakfast in Washington in between appointments to talk about ROPS, his ground breaking further development of Airbus’ Brake to Vacate (BTV) system, pioneered on the A380 in 2009, introduced into the A320 family in 2013 and in the coming year on A330/A340. It will also be fitted to the A350 XWB as part of its basic configuration.

Safety is good business - Developing ROPS

Before we talk about ROPS it is important to understand how Brake to Vacate works. Brake to Vacate is a pilot aid developed by Villaumé to ease congestion and thereby improve runway turnaround time. It is designed to optimize runway occupancy time and reduce braking energy while at the same time maximising passenger comfort. Designed by a multi-disciplinary team comprising avionics, flight controls, auto-flight, landing gear, flight tests, aircraft performance and human factors, the system allows pilots to select the appropriate runway exit during descent or approach preparation thus enabling the aircraft to reach the chosen exit at the correct speed. The project was the subject of Villaumé’s PhD thesis that he began at the French school of civil aviation or Ecole National de l’Aviation Civile (ENAC). After starting to work in 1998 on a three year contract during which his time was divided between the research laboratory and the design office in the flight control department at Airbus in Toulouse under the mentorship of Airbus flight controls system development chief Pierre Fabre, Villaumé perfected the system. Preliminary feasibility was completed in 2001. Villaumé successfully defended his PhD thesis in 2002 on the technology and was taken on by Airbus full time in 2002. The system was first flight-tested in 2004. Industrialization commenced on the A380 in October 2006 with the first test flight in May 2008.

Safety is good business - Developing ROPS

ROPS which stands for Runway Overrun Prevention System is a logical further development of BTV, assisting the crew during approach, giving a clear textual and aural warning and thereby giving the pilot time to decide whether to land or make a go-around and, on the ground, advising the pilot to set and/or keep the thrust reversers and to apply full pedal braking. To significantly reduce the risk of runway overrun at landing, 8 goals needed to be achieved. These included, real time continuous computing of the aircraft landing distance and available landing, stopping distance, a comparison with the legal landing distance available (LDA), the ability to trigger alerts with simple operating procedures when necessary, to be able to guarantee reliability and reasonable margins, EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) approval, consistency with future FAA TALPA (Take off and landing performance assessment) using validated runway data and finally to prevent airlines from tuning the system themselves. The data thus gathered also has to take into account such factors as runway topography, condition, aircraft weight and configuration, wind and temperature.


Initial calculations by Villaumé led to his conclusions that accidents could be reduced by a quarter. Accidents, which go by the somewhat euphemistic term “runway excursions” include aircraft either veering off the side of the runway or overrunning at the very end of the runway, have become the primary cause of civil airliner hull losses in recent years. Clearly however this was not just a safety feature, this was a business proposition with ramifications beyond installation in Airbus products. By his own admission Villaumé is a “technologist” –a believer in the power of technology. An innovative project such as ROPS is like BTV before it. Developing both was a step-by-step process with a lot of “learning by doing” thrown in. The mix of expertise is crucial to the success of the project as is the element of mutual understanding, which is a prerequisite in small teams where the phrase “burning the candles at both ends” accurately describes the typical working day. Key people in this dedicated team were qualified test pilot Armand Jacob, the senior flight test project pilot , a man with many years of experience including working out of Edwards Air Force base in the US and flight safety adviser to the Airbus Product Safety Officer. Equally significant was Robert Lignée, senior flight test engineer, specialising in aircraft performance, braking and steering system design. Villaumé recounted, “we had a big generation gap to deal with but I felt that the company had given me all the tools to lead this team and it felt right.”

According to Villaumé, this is one of the reasons why he enjoys working for Airbus, the company immediately understood the need to think entrepreneurially.” In terms of how the business looks to employ people the key message to young engineers thinking of a career with Airbus is that the company is looking for individuals who combine both technical expertise and entrepreneurial spirit, “ We are here to create value”. Value in safety terms and value in business terms. This is one of the reasons why Airbus chose to encourage other manufacturers to use the system as well. Selflessly not holding onto ROPS as an Airbus product differentiator is both laudable in safety terms and as Fabrice Villaumé said over breakfast, “it just makes excellent business sense.” Ultimately ROPS is a perfect example of a product created by an entrepreneurial mind set. Airbus began sponsorship of an Executive MBA at the HEC Business School in Paris in 2009/2010 which is focused on exactly that: Strengthening the business/entrepreneurial mindset, corporate strategy skills and leadership. Airbus Senior Vice President for Innovation Yann Barbaux is equally keen to foster this mindset, setting up the Corporate Innovation team of which Villaumé is a member in 2013. The team is tasked with identifying high potential innovation projects within the company and accelerating them until implementation in a 2 to 3 year timeframe. For Villaumé, the timing couldn’t have been better, enabling him to launch ROPS as a business and introduce an innovative collaborative business model with insurers and authorities to make ROPS a real global standard not limited to Airbus aircraft types. Now that is truly innovative.

Flight Path Optimization and Smart Enery management

At this year’s Singapore Air Show, Airbus Group Innovations presented two programmes designed to achieve the targets set out by the European Commission report entitled “Flightpath 2050 – Europe’s Vision for Aviation”

These are flight path optimization (FPO) and Power Management (PM). High Flyer caught up with Research Team Leader Nicolas Fouquet to talk about PM and Head of Intelligent Systems Olaf Heizinger on FPO.

Flight Path Optimization and Smart Enery management

Fouquet confirmed, “Singapore was a catalyst, bringing the two teams together and we now intend on cooperating more closely in the future as flight path optimisation and on board power management complement each other very well.”

Both projects have clear targets in terms of reducing fuel, time over flight and so-called spill costs. Power Management helps to improve a platform during both design and operational phases. During the design phase, knowing that advanced power management will be available brings considerable benefits as far as sizing and packaging are concerned. It enables developers to generally downsize systems, bringing improved trade offs and allowing for the development of more energy efficient architectures. During operations, power management guarantees optimal energy usage and thus minimizes fuel burn.

Flight path optimization, partitions the flight mission into segments thereby converting the flight mission into an optimal control problem. This is then translated into non–linear programming to calculate the optimal trajectory. It provides optimal solutions for variable boundary conditions making these solutions available when needed. Minimizing energy consumption to improve mission length remains a critical factor for the aviation industry today. Heizinger confirmed that his team has worked on reducing noise emissions as well as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and hydrocarbons. Additionally, local air quality (smog, for example) needs to be taken into consideration.

Nature is a significant factor and the software being developed reflects this. Fouquet uses the following analogy, “ Imagine driving a car blindfolded. You have to hit the barriers on the side of the road to realize you are off track. By looking ahead, one is able to anticipate the future behavior of the car and work out a reference trajectory.”

Flight Path Optimization and Smart Enery management

To reach a given destination safely and on time, a driver subconsciously adopts a series of intermediate objectives over a fixed distance or horizon that recede with the passage of time ahead of the vehicle. These objectives take the form of speed profiles or trajectories chosen to satisfy the desired driving requirements. In practice, variable road and weather conditions, such as rain, wind, slope, oil patches, etc., introduce unknown factors or disturbances that must be constantly monitored by the driver and compensated for by making the appropriate corrections to the speed and direction of the car.

The simple example above highlights the fundamental principles and requirements of advanced power management control, which include:

  • representing the system’s response to a given stimulus using some form of mathematical model;
  • projecting the desired process behaviour should be expressed as an “ideal” or reference trajectory;
  • the action is dictated by the relation: Action > Effect, from which the Desired Effect > Applied Action is determined;

Noise abatement is a critical factor as far as FPO is concerned; lowered flaps, high performance takeoffs, wind, jet-stream distribution, weather hazards including storms or turbulence, and unplanned events such as airport closures all have a significant influence.

Power management is an obvious candidate for optimization. As Airbus Group moves towards more electric platforms, there is an opportunity to revisit the sizing and management of on-board systems. Legacy architectures are based on pneumatic, hydraulic and electric power. On a more electric platform, systems share electricity as the common energy carrier. Tens of loads will thus feed on the electrical network and for this to operate successfully there is a need to be able to optimize the overall energy consumption of the system single most important aspect is the ability to predict and anticipate power loads.

Transferring responsibility from the brain to artificial systems is fraught with difficulty. Fouquet prefers to stick to the mathematician’s approach. “Many attempts have been made since the sixties. Some aim at replicating the human brain (artificial neural networks), processes (artificial intelligence) or evolution (genetic algorithms). This brings unnecessary complexity to a topic such as power management, and those algorithms could pose serious challenges when it comes to certification. Our goal is to isolate the most interesting features and express them in simple mathematical terms to tailor them to our specific needs.”

The team that developed the PM software for the Singapore show employed one person in Singapore full time for 4 months to develop the simulator, with support from the UK team. For the broader topic of power management algorithm development, there are 3 people in Fouquet’s team working full time on various projects for Airbus and Airbus Defence and Space. ON FPO, the team varies from 3 to 5 people including one PhD graduate and two interns. As Heizinger is quick to relate, integrating the interns into a project is easy but there are things that the intern needs to bring to the project, Heizinger: “The intern needs to have a clear idea about what they want to achieve. There is an opportunity here to get heavily involved in a project. We need the top performers. We have had a lot of very good interns over the last few years from Sao Paolo in Brazil thanks to an excellent exchange programme. Our people are all experts in their respective fields, but we want them to think out of the box and understand the application for which the technology is being developed. I must admit I am always more curious, when I see a job application from someone who understands how air traffic control works or has a pilot’s license.”

Although the Singapore simulation was merely a demonstration of what can be done, Heizinger confirmed that the future demands optimization procedures. For military planners and air traffic control, the fundamental question is how agile they will need to be in the future – a clear trend is already visible and that is the demand for much greater flexibility in the way airspace will be used in the future.

Significantly, power management has many applications, As Fouquet says, “Within Airbus Group, we’ve worked on ground based renewable power generation stations, we are building the Mars rover, and preparing the High Altitude Pseudo Satellite. The automotive industry is investing heavily in this topic for their all electric and hybrid vehicles.”

A vibrant innovation culture is the prerequisite of technological research and development and ultimately commercial success. Fouquet: “First of all, there is a need for a strong theme to bring the teams together and motivate them. In this case, electric propulsion, autonomous systems and on-board energy management are priority topics at Airbus Group level. Each one of the three teams had expertise in one of those topics and this air show was the opportunity to demonstrate we could work together. A steering committee selected the most promising concept for implementation. Great autonomy was given to the teams to translate that into the demonstration. Once the ball gets rolling and with a clear work share between teams, it’s actually possible to turn the transnational aspect and the time zones to the advantage of the project. In the final weeks, we were having daily updates of the algorithms provided by the German and UK teams, forwarded to the Singapore team by end of day, European time. The Singapore team was then able to work on integration into the overall demonstrator and provide feedback and guidance on what worked and what didn’t work the following morning during a conference call. This allowed us to react very quickly and make rapid progress thus motivating the team and allowing us to tackle challenging deadlines.

Power management and flight path optimization are only two pieces of the puzzle that will eventually make electric flight feasible. PM in particular will contribute to make those architectures lighter, more efficient and more affordable. Finally, an airshow demonstration is a short-term project that allows teams to get together and share an exciting goal with stringent deadlines. But the real benefit is in the follow up work. As Fouquet sums up, “In our case, we’ve identified, via this project, opportunities for further cooperation between the teams and we intend to build on this success.