Virtual testbeds (VTBs) are essential for researchers and engineers during the planning, decision making, and testing phases of space missions because they are much faster and cost-effective than physical models or tests. Moreover, they allow to simulate the target conditions that are not available on earth for real-world tests, and it is possible to change or adjust mission parameters or target conditions on-the-fly. However, such highly specialized and flexible tools are often only available as desktop tools with limited visual feedback and a lack of usability. On the other hand, VR is predestinated for easy, natural interac-tion even in complex decision making and training scenarios, while simultaneously offering high fidelity visual feedback and immersion. We present a novel tool that combines the flexibility of virtual testbeds with an easy-to-use VR interface. To do so, we have extended a VTB for planetary exploration missions, the VaMEx-VTB (Valles Marineris Exploration-VTB), to support sophisticated virtual reality (VR) interactions. The VTB is based on the modern game engine “Unreal Engine 4”, which qualifies it for state-of-the-art rendering. Additionally, our system supports a wide variety of different hardware devices, including head- mounted displays (HMDs) and large projection powerwalls with different tracking and input methods. Our VR-VTB enables the users to investigate simulated sensor output and other mission parameters like lines-of-sight or ground formations for a swarm of different spacecraft, including autonomous ground vehicles, flying drones, a humanoid robot, and supporting orbiters. Moreover, the users can directly interact with the virtual environment to distract the swarm units or change environment parameters, like adding boulders or invoking sand storms. Until now, we have used our system for three different scenarios: a swarm-based exploration of the Valles Marineris on planet Mars, a test scenario of the same swarm units on the Canary Islands, and the autonomous building of a moon base. An expert review shows the general usability of our VR-VTB.

René Weller, Christoph Schröder, Jörn Teuber, Philipp Dittmann, Gabriel Zachmann
IEEE Aerospace Conference (AeroConf), 2021

 author = {Weller, René and Schröder, Christoph and Teuber, Jörn and Dittmann, Philipp
and Zachmann, Gabriel},
 booktitle = {IEEE Aerospace Conference (AeroConf)},
 doi = {10.1109/AERO50100.2021.9438374},
 editor = {Kendra Cook},
 month = {March},
 publisher = {IEEE},
 title = {VR-Interactions for Planning Planetary Swarm Exploration Missions in VaMEx-VTB},
 year = {2021}

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