Agencies' plans for robotic explorers hit high gear

Agencies' plans for robotic explorers hit high gear

William Adams, left, and Alan Schultz of the Navy Center for Applied Research in AI control robots using palmtop computers.

Sparked by success of Mars Rover and Remote Agent, managers invest time and funds in AI projects

By Dennis Blank

Special to GCN

ORLANDO, Fla.'Buoyed by the success of the Mars Rover and the Remote Agent software applications that recently guided a deep-space craft via artificial intelligence, NASA has plans to put more robotic explorers out in space.

Kenneth M. Ford, director of the NASA Center of Excellence for Information Technology at Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., said robotic craft are faster, better and cheaper than human exploration.

Ford and other federal speakers from the Naval Research Laboratory and the Army's unmanned vehicles project took part in the National Conference on Artificial Intelligence here last month.

Robotic land rovers, aircraft and submarines survive harsh conditions while 'carrying our intelligence and our curiosity,' Ford said. 'They need to be adaptable and self-reliant.'

NASA's Remote Agent software, which went to work last spring, was hailed by many of the 1,100 conference visitors as the top achievement in AI so far. It drew praise for overcoming various difficulties encountered by the Deep Space 1 craft 117 million miles from Earth.

House calls

Remote Agent, described on the Web at, plays doctor by 'diagnosing its own problems and developing action plans to regain its health,' a NASA official said.

On May 21, the software detected the failure of an electronics unit and fixed it by reactivation, much as PC users reboot after the screen freezes, said Marc Rayman, chief mission engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

'If not for Remote Agent's ability to do on-board planning,' said Pandu Nayak, the deputy project manager at Ames, 'it would have taken days for the ground team to come up with a new plan.'

Ford said that $20 million to $30 million of the space agency's $200 million information technology budget is going into AI development, and he expects that amount to increase.

He depicted the robotic explorers as ambassadors to harsh regions and said they must be smart enough to cope with the elements and make key decisions on their own.''

'Time in space is too precious to waste,' Ford said. Because it can take 25 minutes to transmit one small message, 'they will not be able to send us all their raw data, so they will have to decide for themselves.'

NASA researchers are also working on computational aids to amplify human cognitive and perceptual abilities, Ford said. Calling them cognitive prostheses, he said the hybrid systems will fit human and machine components together in synergistic ways.

Ford said the threat of an asteroid hitting Earth, depicted in recent movies, has in fact come true about every 40,000 years.

'We must learn to detect and deflect,' he said. The space agency wants to develop robotic spaceships that could blow up space debris or grapple it and pull it off course, he said.

At the conference, teams from universities and research laboratories competed to see how well their robots could outwit a maze of obstacles. The contest, headed by Alan Schultz, a research scientist at the Navy Center for Applied Research in AI in Washington, stimulates student interest in robotics and AI.

Schultz said the Naval Research Laboratory spends $5 million annually on AI research on, for example, a robot that could enter a burning building and sense whether people were inside and in need of rescue.

He said the robotics competition encourages development of far-reaching capabilities and use of multiple auditory, range-finding and vision sensors. 'Many areas of artificial intelligence and robotics must be integrated,' he said, so systems could be 10 years away.

In one research project, Schultz is trying to make robots store and use what they learned in previous environments. 'We have created a system that lets a robot enter a previously unknown indoor environment, map the environment while maintaining accurate position information, and plan and navigate within that environment,' he said.

The Army demonstrated semiautonomous unmanned vehicles that detected and helped clear land mines in Bosnia, according to Galyon E. Branam, acting project manager for the project at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.

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