Antonio Delfino, director and co-founder of Venturi Lab, tells us how the adventure of an imposing astromobile, which should be deposited on our natural satellite in mid-2026, began.
The Venturi Group in Monaco, its Swiss subsidiary Venturi Lab, and its 100 % American partner Venturi Astrolab, unveiled on March 31 a launch agreement with SpaceX : their Flex (Flexible Logistics and Exploration) astromobile, developed since the end of 2019, is to be dropped off in mid-2026 near the Moon's south pole, using the Starship megalance. The motorized vehicle of more than 2 tons (including cargo) will be the largest and most powerful in the history of lunar vehicles: when empty, the lunar jeep LRV (Lunar Roving Vehicle) of the Apollo program weighed 210 kg. Flex will have for mission to demonstrate " its efficiency, its viability and its capacity to carry out scientific experiments and commercial activities ". We interviewed Antonio Delfino, director and co-founder of Venturi Lab and a member of the Venturi Astrolab advisory board, about the genesis of the project.
A PhD in physics, with a passion for technology, engineering and science, Antonio Delfino was head of the Chemistry and Physics department at Michelin Research and Technique in Switzerland and senior fellow of the group. Among other things, he developed the Airless tire and was the initiator of the fuel cell in the early 2000s. In 2007, he met Monegasque businessman Gildo Pallanca Pastor, who is known for buying the Venturi automotive brand, a designer of high-performance electric vehicles, and then for his involvement in Formula Electric (FE), from its debut in 2014 to 2022. " Gildo pushed electric mobility to the extreme, long before Tesla, notes Antonio Delfino if one day someone wanted to write a book on the history of the modern electric vehicle for now 25 years, Gildo should appear in the first pages. Because he is a visionary, a technology enthusiast, and someone who seeks to break records, on four wheels but also on two (with a host of records held by the Wattman electric motorcycle, driven by Max Biaggi). Without directly looking for profit: "Except for an agreement with the French government to build a thousand electric vehicles for the French Post Office in 2009 (a European first), everything that has been developed at Venturi has been done on its own funds: for the time being, there is no economic model, nor is there any desire to make a turnover. The primary objective, for Gildo, is to advance a certain number of technologies to advance the electrification of vehicles, for the good of humanity, but also to carry the colors of Monaco high. "
A founding trip to California
The first meeting between the two men took place during the development of the Venturi Volage roadster, a prototype equipped with Michelin's active wheels. " But it was really in 2018 that we started talking about space projects," Antonio Delfino tells us. After his health problems [Gildo Pastor suffered a stroke in 2014], Gildo was back on track with his projects. I suggested that he visit NASA's JPL in California and SpaceX's facilities, which I've been working with since their early days. He was very impressed, and he said to me: "But Antonio, we're going to go to Mars too, and to the Moon to start with! [Laughs] Making a prototype on Earth is one thing, but in space, it's another: we no longer have mechanics who can repair it on the spot within the hour, we have to do industrial quality, or even more, with few copies, by going to the limits of what is possible... But I had lit the fuse, and he was interested: a few months after these visits, Gildo called me back to return, and the adventure began. That's how we approached Brian Wilcox, a retired JPL Mars rover specialist, and Jaret Matthews, an engineer who moved from Brian Wilcox's team to SpaceX in 2010 to lead the International Space Station's Dragon Tanker Mechanism Development Team. He is the one who founded Venturi Astrolab in December 2019, a 100% American company, with American employees, and located two steps away from SpaceX. Several engineers from SpaceX, but also from Nasa, then arrived, and among them - and not the least - Rius Billing and Vivake Asnani, who work on extra-planetary mobility. So it's a nice robotics team that has started working on a lunar rover that is a bit out of the ordinary, much more ambitious than those proposed by the various teams entered in the Google Lunar X Prize, and even than the one at Nasa in the seventies. "
" Venturi Lab, which I run here in Fribourg, Switzerland, and Venturi Monaco, partnered with Venturi Astrolab, a year after its creation, to develop some technologies, especially in the context of Nasa's Artemis lunar program and its LTV (Lunar Terrain Vehicle) - with a limited percentage, of course, since we are a foreign company. Thanks to the willingness of all the teams to move quickly, we were able to quickly produce terrestrial prototypes and show them to NASA. For the past two years, exchanges have become more and more frequent, and have enabled us to make proposals for the pre-tender, which was issued last February; the final tender will be issued in May of this year. So, thanks to us, NASA will not only buy a rover, but will order a complete service, that is to say, build the rover, send it to the Moon and also operate it on the spot on a private basis; and NASA will buy and operate a part of this time. This means a very long term partnership, with ten years of operations. On this LTVS (S, for Services) project, compared to the large multinationals that are obliged to be cautious before investing millions, we have a certain lead today. And, in the long run, we can envision a huge business model, whether it be for transporting payloads in one piece, in cubesats, which we will call Moon cube, but also any type of scientific experiments commissioned by academic and government institutions... "
A versatile machine
Antonio Delfino describes the beast : " Flex is a multi-purpose rover, part tool (including a robotic arm), part payload and part habitacle transporter, inspired by Brian Wilcox's Athlete project in the mid-2000s at JPL. It's also a standardized container transporter, as proposed by Jaret Matthews, who was inspired by international cargo shipping logistics. It is a system that is intended to be as simple as possible on the Moon, to avoid having to use a lot of tools, cranes, shovels..., and that transports containers under the belly, thanks to an inverted U-shaped chassis. It can change its ground clearance with the help of actuators, in order to hook its payload, lift it, transport it, drop it and get out of it easily, with the astronauts in a standing position. In its first version, Flex will be powered by batteries whose origin is not yet revealed. But what's certain is that Venturi Monaco is putting its money where its mouth is. The rover will also be equipped with solar panels, arranged on each side, to provide between 25 and 35 kWh, or even more. In terms of size, it measures 3.8 m long, 2.6 m wide and 1.8 m high, and its wheels have 270° of freedom, which means they can almost turn on themselves. This makes it possible to drive in a crab shape and to climb terrains with slopes up to 30°, with its attitude remaining horizontal thanks to a differential of the ground clearance on both sides. We conducted a number of tests at Nasa's Dumont Dunes analog test facility in the Mojave Desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and in the presence of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfiled, who is on the Venturi Astrolab advisory board. "
And Antonio Delfino insisted on the ease of use of Flex for astronauts : " During the Apollo program, astronauts had infinite difficulties getting on their lunar jeep, and it required a whole procedure to sit on it and wedge their feet... It's actually an unnatural position at all when the astronaut is equipped with his spacesuit, but it was too late when NASA realized this. So, the standing position that we have chosen, it is indeed for a question of ergonomics the step is only 3 cm, the attachment with the vehicle is done with the ventral part of the suit, and the commands are all simple, with a joystick. "
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