Mountain View Voice

News - March 21, 2014

Ames' flying robot and airline traffic projects in spotlight

NASA chief's visit to Mountain View draws attention to innovations

by Daniel DeBolt

In a tour of NASA Ames on Monday, NASA chief Charles Bolden stopped to listen to engineers discuss several projects that apparently needed some attention: a flying smart-phone based robot to do inspections on the International Space Station and NASA's work on a new satellite-based flight control system for U.S. airports, to replace World War II-era radar technology.

Bolden suggested that such a system would have kept Malaysia airlines flight 370 from disappearing over the Pacific Ocean on March 8.

"Everybody is wondering, 'What if?'" Bolden said. "'What if?' won't help Malaysia airlines but we may not have another case like this. Satellites, without a doubt, will help. The system we have now is ground-based. There are no ground-based systems over the ocean."

Engineers said that the new system could save airlines at 35 major airports $100 million to $200 million in fuel costs because the more efficient computer-based system would mean airplanes would not have to push back from the terminal and wait for takeoff with engines idling.

"It really is an unprecedented contribution of NASA technology," said John Robinson, lead engineer for the project, known as ATD-1. He asked Bolden to spread awareness about the work with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Robinson said that when he tells people he works for NASA in aeronautics, no one knows NASA does aeronautics. That sentiment wasn't lost on Bolden, who remarked, "The big A in NASA is for aeronautics, not administration."

Flying robots to aid astronauts

Bolden made a stop in the Ames Intelligent Robotics department to check in on the "Spheres" program, which is developing a free-flying robot to be used to monitor, and maybe even someday repair, spacecraft. It's one of many projects at NASA that are making use of smart phones, such as the PhoneSat program which turns them into satellites. It has many elements needed for a free-flying robot, including its camera.

"The smart phone is a really powerful platform — just add propulsion to it and you're good," said one NASA researcher before Bolden arrived. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a flight processor that actually has the power of this cell phone," said another NASA engineer.

"Spheres is just a testbed to help us figure out what do we need to do to build a robot that can fly anywhere in the space station," said lead engineer Chris Provencher.

A prototype was shown floating over a large precision granite table, pushing itself around with computer controlled air jets on its spherical body.

Provencher told Bolden that the prototype uses a typical Android phone and operating system (Apple was said to be uninterested in helping NASA) with the SIM card removed for 'ultimate airplane mode" to prevent electronic interference. Other modifications include a coating over its glass to prevent shattering and alkaline batteries that won't catch fire on the space station.

"If there is a radiator leak or some type of damage you want to inspect you could have a free-flyer go out and inspect it," Provencher said. Or even further into the future: "Have a robot doing the repairs for you."

Google and Moffett

In a press conference, Bolden was asked how NASA benefits from its partnerships with Google at Ames.

"I think the city of Mountain View, hopefully, and the surrounding communities are going to be really happy," he said about the pending lease with a Google subsidiary for Moffett Field's airfield and hangars, including restoring Hangar One. "We're not giving over the federal land, but what people here will find, I hope, is they won't know the handover has been made because the operations that currently go on here at Moffett Field will continue. I'm sure there are great advantages for the Google family, which the company that won is a member of."

When asked by the Voice how NASA itself would benefit from the sort of research Google plans to do in hangars on the airfield, he rebuffed the question: "You would have to address that with Google." Bolden mentioned that he hoped that NASA funding that had been used to operate the airfield — estimated at $7 million a year for Ames — could go toward other Ames projects.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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