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Smart Mars rovers to think, work as team

Two autonomous rovers approached, gripped and carried this beam more than 164 feet (50 m) in a recent test.
Two autonomous rovers approached, gripped and carried this beam more than 164 feet (50 m) in a recent test.  

From Allard Beutel
CNN Headline News

(CNN) -- NASA is working on a new breed of rovers whose sole purpose is to work together on Mars. They are robots that basically act like synchronized swimmers for construction work.

The space agency envisions a martian building crew consisting of multiple rovers. Prototypes can now lift and move an eight-foot metal beam.

While it may not seem like much, it actually represents a major accomplishment in robotics. They use experimental software that allows them essentially to share a brain.

"There are some basic advances we're after here," said Paul Schenker, supervisor of robotics engineering at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"They include the idea of having robots not just cooperate, but work as tightly coupled, coordinated teammates."

The new Mars rovers would be programmed with a set of behaviors that lets them operate independently on a common job, like building a solar power station, and requires little guidance from humans on Earth.

Using the new software and wireless communications, each rover would know what the other is doing react accordingly. Those developing the rover prototypes sound almost like proud parents.

"We've found ways for the robots to get along and get along quite well, instantaneously," Schenker said. "They're sharing their decision making process; they're responding adaptively to difficult situations."

One of challenging circumstances such rovers would face is navigating rough terrain while carrying objects together. The rovers are being designed to use their onboard sensors and cameras to avoid obstacles like big rocks.

"They have behaviors now that are set up to sense the rock and then basically the two of them go into a planning mode. Then they decide how to get around the obstacle and continue on their way," NASA engineer Terry Huntsberger said.

NASA estimates that it will be 15 to 20 years before such highly coordinated and adaptive rovers could tool around on Mars.

But the agency is already trying to incorporate some of the technology into their current generation of robots.

"Making rovers smarter is a good thing," Schenker said.




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