MARS ROVERS TO GET BRAINS
A ROBOT THAT DESERVES THE MONIKER
We love those funny little space buggies. They scoot over the surface of Mars, poking their little camera stalks up on command. Click click, and the images are floating back to earth at 186,000 miles per second. They scrape, shovel, drill, and sample rocks, using microscopes, chemical analyzers, and other stuff, helping scientists understand the wonders of an alien world. It’s amazing to watch all this; also, of course, very educational. And it’s safe because, if anybody gets killed, it’s not a human anybody – just an expendable machine.
Here’s my question. Do these things deserve to be called robots if we’re making all the big decisions back here? I know there’s some intelligence on board. Obviously. There has to be. With that 15 minute delay, we wouldn’t be able to keep the rovers from falling over a cliff. They land themselves automatically too - they have to – and they drive from point A to point B on their own (once commanded).
Nobody’s calling our adorable little rovers dunces. But for the big decisions – which rocks to take a look at, which data set needs to get sent back to earth first, which set of experiments goes next – these all come from “the ground”.
That ground-Mars-Ground round trip’s starting to get on NASA’s nerves. According to Kiri Wagstaff, computer scientist at JPL (article in Geophysical Research letters) a new set of “brains” designed around a new camera system call TextureCam will give make these new rovers autonomous enough to function much further away than Mars.
ScienceAintSoBad ConditionalRating = 10 for this excellent step forward. If it all works out (that’s the “conditional” piece of the rating, of course), we’ll be well on our way to real robots in space.
- – - – - – - -The cartoon is mine.