Saving a bit is far-out -

Or, more accurately, sometimes scarcity can bring about astonishing efficiencies by
forcing smart thinking. We should keep this in mind as the computer industry software and
hardware makers leapfrog


one another regularly with speed and feature advancements.


At a recent conference, an after-dinner speaker brought home forcefully this
scarcity-innovation theory. Like many in the audience, I was prepared to snooze. Instead,
we sat up and listened.


The speaker, Matt Wallace of Rover Operations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
described the computing and data communications for NASA's recent Mars Pathfinder landing,
which featured the robotic Rover vehicle.


The agency's goal was to get the Pathfinder mission done at one-tenth the price of
earlier Mars probes. The cost structure forced lots of rethinking.


For example, the mission couldn't afford fancy retro rockets to safely and slowly lower
the lander onto Mars. So the engineers wrapped it in a cluster of big, bouncy and cheap
air bags, then unceremoniously dropped it unharmed onto the red planet.


Wallace also explained how the efficiencies extended to the Rover's on-board
information technology.


The lander had an adaptation of an IBM RS/6000 workstation to process pictures and
transmit them back to Earth. But the Rover was small--the size of a microwave oven--and
had to transmit pictures only from its camera to the lander. So it had limited power.


In true off-the-shelf spirit, the Rover executed its image processing with an 80C85
processor.


That is approximately the same processor you'd find in a microwave oven. It's
15-year-old technology.


But, as Wallace noted, it is radiation-hardened and uses little power. Plus, it could
transmit data via a standard modem and radio frequency converter. The Rover evidently
didn't need to run Microsoft Windows 95 to do its job.


The result? Stunning, ground-level pictures from Mars that fed NASA research and
sparked more than 1 billion visits to NASA's World Wide Web site.


So the next time we have the temptation to throw more money and horsepower at a
problem, let's stop and think of the Rover and its commodity 8-bit processor.


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