Robotics to Transform Exploration

Robotics to Transform Exploration

At a Congressional Robotics Caucus briefing held today, presenters discussed innovative ways to use robotics not only to solve problems here on Earth, but also to transform the way humans explore the Solar System and beyond.

Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA), co-chair of the caucus, mentioned yesterday’s vote on the NASA Authorization bill and said he anticipates robotics to be a “key component” in the agency’s future. He also congratulated the NASA-supported Carlton J. Kell High School Robotics Team, which has used the knowledge gained through the FIRST Robotics Competition to solve real-world problems. Team members talked about their designs, including an oil-recovery and capture robot called Orca, and other initiatives they are involved with to increase science literary and put science, technology, engineering, animation, and mathematics skills (or STEAM) at the service of the community.

But participants also talked about the role of robotics beyond Earth. Dr. Terry Fong, Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames Research Center, discussed three ways in which robotics can help “reinvent” planetary exploration:

  • Robots for human exploration
  • Advances in neo-geography
  • Participatory Exploration

Questioning the assumption that robotic and human exploration should be separate affairs, Dr. Fong described ways in which robotic exploration can enhance and complement human exploration – before, during, and after crew involvement in the mission. He described how robots, like NASA Ames’ K10 robot, could be remotely operated to perform reconnaissance and scouting to support a human expedition on a planetary surface and deliver detailed terrain data before the crew arrived at a specific location to be explored. This would help the astronauts prepare for what they will encounter and save their time by pre-identifying locations for them to explore. Although robotic probes perform a similar function in orbit, robots that can land and actually move in the terrain can provide richer data. The idea is to coordinate both human and robotic components at every stage of a mission so that robots take care of crucial tasks that are “unproductive” for humans to perform. An issue still to be resolved is the limited amount of data that can be transmitted back to Earth. For the time being, “we just never have enough bandwidth,” said Dr. Fong.

Both neo-geography and participatory exploration refer to advances in robotics to increase public involvement. Neo-geography involves modern mapping tools placed at the hands of users and allowing them to “explore from [their] own desktop” detailed, interactive, explorable maps. In a similar fashion, robotics can enhance participatory exploration, which thrives on public input and collaboration in space exploration. Using robots like Gigapan – which takes interactive gigapixel panorama images – the public can help NASA decide which locations to focus on in future missions. These and other initiatives, Dr. Fong said, would provide an “opportunity to reinvent the way we do exploration.”

David Gump, President of Astrobiotic Technology, Inc., talked about another innovation in exploration: bringing in the private sector. With their participation in the Google Lunar X PRIZE (in which participants must land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and send video back to Earth), Gump and his team hope to increase public interest and involvement in lunar exploration through a number of initiatives including live Web participation and the first “sociable” robot, able to “tweet” and update its Facebook account to let the public follow it along on its mission.

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