Volume 5, Number 5 September/October 1997
UTURE SCIENTIFIC SPACE EXPLORATION missions to Antarctica, the Moon and Mars look promising after a four-wheel-drive roving robot explored the terrain of Chile's rugged Atacama Desert for 45 days. The rover named Nomad set travel records and exceeded expectations of scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Nomad traveled 133 miles, more than any remotely controlled robot has ever done over rough territory, driving 12 of those miles totally on its ownan important objective called autonomous driving. A rock retrieved by Nomad, seen initially by scientists as a simple rock through Nomad's panoramic camera, turned out to be an undiscovered rock deposit from the Jurassic period, confirming the use of human-eye resolution cameras for geology. A separate panospheric camera returned more than a million video panoramas from the desert's cold arid region, located 7,000 feet above, confirming the benefits of immersive, hemispheric imagery for remote control, peripheral vision driving for space exploration.
"This is a quantum leap for the planetary robotics culture," said principal investigator Dr. William L. "Red" Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon. The historical standard of robotic travel has been yards, not miles, and autonomous driving is critical for planetary exploration.
The communications delay between Earth and planets can be many minutes, and a robot can explore a much greater distance because it is able to see and recognize obstacles on its own and does not have to depend on a person to decide a safe route, according to Dr. Mark Maimone, Nomad software and navigation lead at Carnegie Mellon.
The 1,600-pound robot is the size of a small car and travels at the speed of one mile per hour on a gasoline-powered generator. Its chassis expands for improved travel over various terrain conditions, and its four aluminum wheels provide traction in soft sand.
"Nomad" the rover created a new standard for robotic travel and paved the way for
future space exploration to Antarctica, the Moon and Mars after traveling 133
miles, more than any other remote-controlled robot, in recent
During different phases of testing, the robot was put through various simulations for wide-area exploration of the Moon, the search for past life on Mars and the gathering of meteorite samples in the Antarctic, according to officials at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. NASA and Carnegie Mellon are formulating plans to use Nomad to look for meteorites in Antarctica in 1998 and 1999.
The total $1.6 million cost of developing Nomad and conducting the desert trek was funded by NASA with in-kind support from corporate sponsors and educational foundations.
For more information, contact David S. Wettergreen at Ames Research Center.
Call 415/604-2257 E-mail: David.S.Wettergreen@arc.nasa.gov
Please mention you read about it in Innovation.