PITTSBURGH--A team of researchers and graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute has launched an autonomous wheeled robot called Nomad on an unprecedented 40-day, 125-mile trek through the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.
Not only will the journey test the robot's ability to navigate, explore and do remote science as if it were on another planet, it will give the public a unique opportunity to teleoperate a mobile robot. Robotic telepresence is becoming a tool to virtually explore planets, ocean depths, even the sites of nuclear accidents.
Researchers headquartered at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Science Center and NASA's California-based Ames Research Center will timeshare experiments involving Nomad. Science Center visitors will engage the robot in a 10-by-35 foot wraparound theater where a few people will operate Nomad. Others will experience the robot and the desert through a unique interface developed in a collaboration among NASA Ames' Intelligent Mechanisms Group, the University of Iowa and Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
"The Atacama Trek is a NASA initiative to develop a series of technologies for planetary exploration," said principal investigator William L. "Red" Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon's Fredkin research professor and a pioneer in the development of mobile robots. "The Atacama experiment will answer questions about controlling robotic explorers and communicating with them over vast distances." In Chile, a half dozen Robotics Institute researchers who are experts on Nomad's components will monitor its progress from a distance as it moves through the Atacama Desert. The landscape through which the robot is traveling includes craters, rocks and loose sand. To maneuver through this varied terrain, Nomad features four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering. Its chassis can expand to improve its stability and propulsion or contract for storage and transport. Its onboard sensing, planning and navigation capabilities enable autonomous driving and safeguarded teleoperation.
Nomad's cameras enable it to look in all directions and build maps from which it makes decisions about where it should move. One of these is a unique panospheric camera, developed by a member of the Nomad team, that allows 360-degree visualization.
The robot transmits 1.5 megabits of data per second through its narrow antenna beam to a relay, then through a satellite, which downlinks to the United States.
The robot also is equipped with sensors and metal detectors that will help it to search for rocks and meteorites. It will generate geological maps using a technique called patterned navigation. Two stereo cameras will send high-resolution color pictures to geologists and planetary scientists at Ames. They will operate Nomad from June 22-27 and attempt to gather geological data from the information it sends back.
"During different phases of this test, we will configure the robot to simulate wide-area exploration of the Moon, the search for signs of past life on Mars and the gathering of meteorite samples in the Antarctic, which makes for a really unique and challenging experiment," said Dave Lavery, telerobotics program manager at NASA headquarters in Washington. "We want to give planetary scientists experience with robots so they can discover and develop the skills necessary for performing remote science," said David Wettergreen, Ames project leader. "We also need to develop the tools that they need to make accurate scientific analyses and then efficiently traverse from one site to the next."
"Carnegie Mellon has developed a next generation robot that has new and advantageous capabilities," he added. "The importance of doing repeated field experiments has been recognized by NASA and the tests in the Atacama will be an important next step preparing us for future NASA missions to the Moon and Mars."
Chile's Atacama Desert was chosen for this experiment because its vast, barren terrain is similar to planets that robots may explore in the future. Images and data from the Atacama Trek are available on the Internet in real time at Carnegie Mellon: http://www.ri.cmu.edu/atacama-trek/. and NASA Ames: http://img.arc.nasa.gov/Nomad/nomad.html. A Spanish Web site can be found at http://www.entelchile.net/Nomad.