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June 03, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, June 03, 2005

The space traveler's friend The space traveler's friend (June 03, 2005)

NASA-Ames works on 'agents' to help astronauts

By Kathy Schrenk

It may sound like a fantasy out of the Jetsons, and it's a decade or more from becoming reality, but scientists at NASA-Ames research center are developing robots that will help astronauts explore the moon and Mars.

Someday, they say, these wire-and-metal creations will help flesh-and-bone space explorers build space stations, extract samples and take pictures of these distant worlds.

It's quite an experience for Terry Fong, leader of the Intelligent Robotics group. "Right now it's science fiction and we're trying to make it science fact," he said. "We're really pushing the state-of-the-art in software design."

Fong and his group are at the beginning of a four-year project that's expanding the current capabilities of robot intelligence. In the past, he said, robots had been used mostly for exploration. The goal of this project, which officially started in February, is to create robots that can do field labor -- such as building construction -- and ask humans questions when necessary, Fong said.

Scientists are "trying to understand how the robot can express itself and understand humans," he said.

Another robot project, with somewhat different goals, has been going on at NASA-Ames for about five years. The basic aim, said Chief Scientist Bill Clancey, is to essentially make robots serve as the equivalent of a "CAPCOM" -- short for "capsule communicator," the person at mission control in Houston who helped guide the Apollo astronauts through their missions -- for Mars-bound astronauts.

Because of the distance between the Earth and Mars, and the time it takes for messages to travel between, it makes more sense for NASA to station robots on the moon that would serve as CAPCOM for astronauts exploring the moon.

These robotic CAPCOM "agents," as Clancey calls them, can help astronauts navigate a Martian surface where there aren't many landmarks. It can help them locate equipment in their lander or rover, complete tasks and even change their schedule as changing conditions require.

This type of robot is unique and especially challenging because it "has to understand priorities and how that relates dynamically to what's occurring," he said. It also has to understand what an astronaut is saying when he or she explains a change in plans.

The technology was tested earlier this year in the canyons of Utah, Clancey said. Graduate students suited up to explore land they had never seen before, with the help of the agents.

Scientists will also conduct field tests of people and robots working together in an indoor laboratory under construction at Ames. It will feature a control room and simulation of the surface of a moon or planet. The control room will imitate a human habitat on the moon or Mars. Scientists are scheduling completion of the robot laboratory for fall of this year.

The overall robot project is a multi-million dollar collaboration among researchers at NASA-Ames, NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston; Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., the Naval Research Laboratory, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

E-mail Kathy Schrenk at [email protected]

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