More than 3000 engineers find our updates useful. You can get them at your mail box!
Search your paper presentation and project titles:

Department/Area of interest: ( To list the projects / paper presentations)

Mechanical               Scada technology              Communication             Computer science           Alternative energy
Electrical                  Robotics                        Biometrics                     Artificial intelligence             Electronics

Mobile Robots as Scientific Laboratories

NASA engineers are planning to add a strong dose of artificial intelligence

(AI) to planetary landers and rovers to make these robot

spacecraft much more self-reliant and capable of making basic decisions

during a mission without human control or supervision. In the past, robot

rovers contained very simple AI systems, which allowed them to make a

limited number of basic, noncomplicated decisions. In the future, however,

mobile robots will possess much higher levels of AI or machine intelligence

and be able to make decisions now being made by human mission

controllers on Earth.

One of the technical challenges that robot engineers face is how

to encapsulate the process by which human beings make decisions in

response to changes in their surroundings into a robot rover or complex

lander spacecraft sitting on a planet millions of miles (kilometers) away.

To make the detailed exploration of the Moon and Mars by mobile robots

practical over the next two decades, future robot rovers will have to be

intelligent enough to navigate the surface of the Moon or Mars without a

continuous stream of detailed instructions from, and decision-making by,

scientists on Earth.

Large teams of human beings on Earth are needed to direct the Mars

Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity as two robot rovers

roll across the terrain of Mars looking for evidence of water. In a very slow and deliberate process, it takes human-robot teams on

two worlds millions of miles (kilometers) apart several days to achieve

each of many individual mission milestones and objectives. Specifically,

it takes about three (Earth) days for the Spirit or Opportunity robot rover

to visualize a nearby target, get to the target, and do some contact science.

Mission controllers currently measure a great day of robot exploring on

Mars in terms of travel up to 330 feet (100 m) per Martian day (sol) across

the surface of the planet. (A sol is a Martian day and is about 24 hours, 37

minutes, 23 seconds in duration, using Earth-based time units.) Imagine

trying to explore an entire continent here on Earth using a system that

travels a maximum distance each day equivalent to the length of just one

football or soccer field.

This chapter examines how in future a mobile robot with more

onboard machine intelligence (or AI) will collect data about its environment,

and then make an on-the-spot evaluation of appropriate tasks

and actions without being dependent upon decisions made by humans.

Advanced AI systems on board such smart future mobile robots will eventually

allow them to mimic human thought processes and perform tasks

that a human explorer would do. For example, such smart rovers might

pause to make an on-the-spot soil analysis of an interesting sample, communicate

with an orbiting robot spacecraft for additional data about the

immediate location, or even signal other robot rovers to gather (swarm)

at the location in order to perform a collective evaluation of the unusual


Within the next two decades, teams of smart robots, interacting with

each other, should be able to map and evaluate large tracts on the surface

of the Moon or Mars. An interactive team of smart robot rovers would

provide much better coverage of a large area of land and perhaps even

exhibit a level of collective intelligence while performing tasks too difficult

or complex for a single robot system. With a team of robots, the mission

objectives can be accomplished, even if one robot fails to perform or is

severely damaged in an accident.

Prospecting for Lunar Water with Smart Robots

The Moon is nearby and accessible, so it is a great place to try out many

of the new space technologies, including advanced robot spacecraft,

which will prove critical in the detailed scientific study and eventual

human exploration of more distant alien worlds, such as Mars. Whether

a permanent lunar base turns out to be feasible depends on the issue of

logistics, especially the availability of water in the form of water ice. The

logistics problem is quite simple. Water is dense and rather heavy, so shipping

large amounts of water from Earth’s surface to sustain a permanent

human presence on the Moon this century could be prohibitively expensive.

Establishing a permanent human base on the Moon becomes much

easier and far more practical if large amounts of water (frozen in water ice

deposits) are already there.

This unusual resource condition is possible, because scientists now

hypothesize that comets and asteroids smashing into the lunar surface

eons ago left behind some water. Of course, water on the Moon’s surface

does not last very long. It evaporates in the intense sunlight and quickly

departs this airless world by drifting off into space. Only in the frigid

recesses of permanently shadowed craters do scientists expect to find any

of the water that might have been carried to the Moon and scattered across

the lunar surface by ancient comet or asteroid impacts. In the 1990s, two

spacecrafts, Clementine and Lunar Prospector, collected tantalizing data

suggesting that the shadowed craters at the lunar poles may contain significant

quantities of water ice.

NASA plans to resolve this very important question by using smart

robots as scouts. First into action will be the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

(LRO)—a robot spacecraft mission planned for launch by late 2008. The

LRO mission emphasizes the overall objective of collecting science data

that will facilitate a human return to the Moon. As part of NASA’s strategic

plan for solar-system exploration, a return to the Moon by human beings

is considered a critical step in field-testing the equipment necessary for a

successful human expedition to Mars later in this century.

The LRO will orbit the Moon for at least one year using an 18.6–31.1-

mile- (30–50-km-) altitude polar orbit to map the lunar environment in

greater detail than ever before. The six instruments planned for the Lunar

Reconnaissance Orbiter will do many things: they will map and photograph

the Moon in great detail, paying special attention to the permanently shadowed

polar regions. The LRO’s instruments will also measure the Moon’s

ionizing-radiation environment and conduct a very detailed search for

signs of water-ice deposits. No single spacecraft-borne instrument can

provide definitive evidence of ice on the Moon, but if all the data from the

LRO’s collection of water-hunting instruments point to suspected ice in

the same area, those data would be most compelling.

Within NASA’s current strategic vision for robot-human partnership

in space exploration, the LRO is just the first in a string of smart robots

with missions to the Moon over the next two decades. Once compelling

evidence for the presence of water ice is obtained by the LRO, then the

next logical step is to send a smart scout robot to that location to scratch

and sniff the site and to perform on the spot (in situ) analyses. The rover

robot’s detailed investigations will confirm the existence of any water ice.

The semiautonomous mobile robot may expand investigations of the

area to provide a first-order estimate of the total quantity of the water


Finally, if suitable water resources are located and inventoried, teams

of smart robot prospectors would be sent to the Moon to harvest the particular

site or sites in preparation for the return of human beings to the

lunar surface. Supervised and teleoperated by humans from Earth, a team

of semiautonomous water-harvesting robots would make the construction and operation of a permanent human base practical (from a logistics perspective)

and prepare the way for an eventual human expedition to Mars.

Intense Debate Comments