Tuesday, September 10, 2013

It’s a new day for NASA rovers!

What if robots could think on their own. Not as in form a group and plan a revolution, but make simple decisions based on science? 

Currently they are required to check with us before each and every next move. ‘Do I investigate this rack?’, ‘How about this rock?’ ‘Maybe this rock over here?’ NASA is ready to not cut the apron strings, but allow them a little more slack. NASA has developed a new camera system that can draw meaning out of the pictures that it takes. Pretty brilliant, no? 

This technology is able to take a picture (in 3D) and then analyze it. Through looking at the photographs the processor is able to determine if it is dealing with rock or sand or sky, then it drills down (informationally) to check into the size and distance to the rocks pictured. From those it is able to distinguish which ones hold scientific importance and is able to prioritize them. 

This is all done without the need for this processor to disturb the rover’s main processor. The camera (TextureCam) can either upload a high resolution image to send to Earth or send a message to the rover’s main processor and go ahead and check the rock out. 

There are many reasons this seemingly simple advance is so very important. First we look at a rover on Mars. On Mars, a simple decision that is made here on Earth FOR the rover involves first taking a picture, next sending it back. The scientists then review the significance of the photo and then the team that handles the communications sends data back. The answer sometimes is check it out, sometimes don’t. This process can end up taking all day due to limited bandwith and data transfer rate. Granted the Mars orbiters can speed this up but they’re only in the proper alignment a few minutes each day. Granted when Laser communication in space are tested things will speed up to a blur – 20 minutes, 40 minutes round trip. (Currently the LADEE has the communications onboard to test with both US & ESA locations on the ground-in 2017 LCRD will test in space and to the ground!) 

Now let’s look at what it means to a rover on the moon of Jupiter. On Europa, a suspected alien hotspot, these sort of stop and get directions type requests go to 90 minutes each way. Knowing how to decide what has scientific significance AND sending back the other pictures anyway in case our guys decide otherwise, means the rover covers more ground and actually we get more bang for our buck! 

NASA rules the robotic stuff anyway. For those of you that want to remain Earth-bound, well a few more advances of this magnitude and we can have robo-explorers going everywhere, checking out the universe while you remain here. Personally I’d like to be there!  But it be neat to have them go first.

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