We spent today in preparation for two main events; a live demonstration for the NASA Telerobotics Working Group meeting held in Pittsburgh today, and the the NASA Ames remote science experiments that will occur during the next week.
NASA Telerobotics (aka TRIWG, pronounced "try-wig") sponsors robotics research at several universities and NASA centers throughout the country. The Atacama Desert Trek is the culminating demonstration of a four-year research program into Lunar Rover technology at Carnegie Mellon University, which was sponsored by NASA TRIWG. Today was our opportunity to show these other researchers some of the technologies we are demonstrating on this trip. We had a few problems down here with software resets and a hardware problem with a wheel an hour before the demo, but we managed to get things rolling in time.
I'm told the 32-person theater in the Carnegie Science Center was packed with over 60 people, eager to see the immersive video display. Unfortunately the large number of people trying to control the robot tweaked a software bug that prevented the display from functioning properly; as a result, the brief 30 minute demo was not as impressive as it could have been. [Note to C programmers; don't use "signed" ints to represent bit vectors] But the dedicated folks who hung around a bit longer got to see some good stuff; not only was Nomad driven by home team member David Wettergreen from the science center, but Nomad also drove itself around obstacles for a few minutes, because...
Today was the first demo of autonomous driving! What that means is, Nomad was able to steer itself through an area it had never seen before, without bumping into anything or falling down any holes. Nomad uses 3 pairs of cameras, or six "eyes" in total, to figure out, on its own, where it is safe to drive. Although the primary use of this information is to ensure that novice drivers do not accidentally damage the vehicle, Nomad can also steer itself safely *without* a human driver through an unknown area. We demonstrated this for a total of 290 meters today, and look forward to showing it off for many more kilometers.
"Autonomous driving" is one of the principal technologies being demonstrated on this Trek, and it is a very important feature for future planetary explorers. A robot exploring another world will encounter situations where it will either lose communication with Earth, or the communication will take so long that there will be no time to wait for Earth to send a safety command. In the past the solution to this problem has been to move very slowly across the terrain; the Soviet Union sent Lunakhod rovers to the Moon about 25 years ago, but they had to be driven very slowly so as not to endanger the vehicle. With the safeguarding technology being demonstrated on Nomad, a rover could decide for itself that it too dangerous to continue forward, stop in plenty of time, and wait for the human operator to catch up and figure out what had happened.
Can you tell that the author of these snippets works on the autonomous driving?
The schedule for the next week will be a little different than most. Our primary goal for this summer is to demonstrate (intercontinental) remote driving for 200 kilometers (about 125 miles), so that means we encourage Science Center drivers to keep moving as much as possible. But for the next week, Nomad will be at the beck and call of scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in California who will study the geology of the Atacama. And that means that rather than driving a lot, they will be surveying the geology with the science cameras.