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In today’s show we bring you to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Open House, just in time to prepare for the landing of the Curiosity Mars Rover in less than 10 days.
Every year, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory opens its doors to over 38,000 visitors. This year’s theme was “Great Journeys”, inviting visitors to share in the wonders of space through high-definition and 3-D videos, live demonstrations, interactions with scientists and engineers and a first look at JPL’s new Earth Science Center.
As we walk you through the JPL mission control center, clean rooms and facilities, we stop to chat with JPL engineers and developers about the many space systems we encounter including the rovers Athlete, Spirit & Opportunity and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This year’s highlight was the Mars Rover Curiosity, scheduled to land on August 5th. Curiosity, which is part of the the Science Laboratory Mission, will assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life.
People we had a chance to speak with include Tod Litwin & Megan Richardson (Mars Exploration Booth), Kit Kennedy (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), Mike Watkins (MSL Rover Curiosity) and Dimitri Zarzhitsky (Mobility and Robotic Technologies).
Welcome to the second part of our 50th episode special! To celebrate 50 episodes of Robots, we’re doing a review of some of the greatest advances in robotics during the last 50 years, and predictions on what we can hope to see in the next half century. In last week’s episode we covered embodied AI, robot toys, androids, underwater robots, education robots and brain-machine interfaces.
Finally, don’t forget to check out all the new features of our website including episode browsing by topic, interviewee and tag or leaving comments under our blog posts or in the forum.
Jean-Christophe Zufferey is a researcher at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he works on cutting-edge research in Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs). His latest advances have led him to create the startup SenseFly that specializes in small and safe autonomous flying systems for applications such as environmental monitoring and aerial photography.
Dan Kara is President of Robotics Trends and the Robotics Business Review, which are web-portals and research firms specialized in the robotics markets. He’ll be telling us about the past products which have marked the minds and the future developments that will be gathering the buck in the future.
Kristinn R. Thórisson
Kristinn Thórisson is Associate Professor at the School of Computer Science, Reykjavik University in Iceland. Active in the field of Artificial Intelligence for a couple decades, Thórisson is pioneering new approaches such as constructivist AI which he hopes will bring us towards more adaptive and complex artificial systems.
In today’s episode we speak with the lead scientist of the SPHERES project, Dr. Alvar Saenz-Otero from MIT, which aims at developing autonomous formation flight and docking control algorithms for nano-satellites. We then dissect a well known definition of a robot dating back to 1979.
Alvar Saenz-Otero is lead scientist of the SPHERES project at the MIT Space Systems Laboratory in the US. SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) fulfill all the normal requirements of satellites in a small basketball-sized shape. This small size is what has allowed these robots to be tested in the lab, during parabolic flights and even on board the International Space Station (ISS).
The research question is how to make these satellites work together by flying in formations and physically connecting, or docking. Such swarms of satellites could be used to create giant telescope mirrors in space with nano-meter precision and assemble future space stations without the need for human spacewalks.
Saenz-Otero also describes more generally how you get your robot into the ISS and his plans to motivate students about science or pursue his dream of large swarms in space.
What is a Robot?
This week we look at a traditional definition of a robot, coming straight from the Robot Institute of America. According to their 1979 definition, a robot is:
“A reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks”
What’s interesting about this definition is how far we’ve come in the last 30 years in the development of robotics. In 1979 a robot was simply a manipulator used to move parts in pre-programmed motions, which brings to mind industrial robots used in factories. 30 years later robots are no longer simply manipulators, but can propel themselves in their environment, understand their surroundings and act accord to their particular situation and analysis of surroundings instead of simply enacting pre-programmed motions. This 30-year-old official definition no longer applies, so let’s try to figure out what robots mean to us today! Keep sending us your answers by email at email@example.com and let’s get closer to an all-encompassing definition of a robot for the 21st century.
Julie Townsend completed her Bachelor in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and then went on to Stanford for her Master’s degree. She’s now continuing a PhD there while working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) which she joined in 2001. The JPL exists as a NASA laboratory and has been involved in missions relating to the exploration of Earth and space with plans to send robots and humans to explore the moon, Mars and beyond.
As a robotics engineer at the JLP, Townsend has been working on the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. After touching on the development, integration, and testing of the rovers earlier in her career, she then became a Rover Planner, creating command sequences to drive the robots and move their arms on Mars. Townsend tells us what it is like to be the one behind the wheel of a robot on another planet, with all the mind boggling details that make space robots seem so improbable. She also gives us her insider’s view on efforts to get Spirit out of its sand trap on Mars.
In the second part of the interview, Townsend presents the prototype of the All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) robot which will be used as part of the Human Lunar Return campaign to help load, transport, manipulate, and deposit payloads to any desired site of interest. In particular, she speaks about its six legs capable of rolling or walking over extremely rough or steep terrain. After some redesigns, the ATHLETE is now onto its second prototype, getting ready for its mission to the moon.
Sebastian Gautsch recently completed his PhD at the SAMLAB, part of the Institute of Microtechnology in Neuchatel, Switzerland, the goal of which was to design an miniature Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) destined to analyze dust particles on the martian surface. It is hoped that by analyzing the surface of the red planet in minute detail we can gain some insight into the geologic history and potential for biology on the planet.
Gautsch tells us about the difficulties in creating sensors for space, especially the limited payload and autonomy constraints of such a system. He then describes the impressive results they achieved with their sensor which was sent to Mars on the Phoenix lander mission in the spring of 2008, where they took the first ever atomic force microscope image on another planet (see below)!
Red has been a driving force in field robotics, bringing robots out of the lab and into natural environments such as mines, volcano interiors, farms, nuclear facilities, hazardous waste sites and now outer space. One of his best known robots is an autonomous car capable of navigating in urban environments and even traffic. The car drove his TARTAN racing team to victory in the 2007 Darpa Urban Challenge.
In this episode he presents his new endeavor: developing a lunar robot named “RED Rover”, capable of reaching the moon, traveling on its surface and transmitting data to Earth. He’ll be competing against many different teams from around the world to be the first to win the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize.
Survey – Google Lunar X Prize
The Google Lunar X-Prize is the latest competition sponsored by the X Prize foundation who’s aim is to promote private-sector involvement in science that has been traditionally sponsored by large governments. The goal of this contest is to build a robot that can “safely land on the moon, travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the Earth.” Sponsored by Google this time around, the first successful privately-funded team will win a prize of $20 million! The challenge is tough however and the deadline short, with the full prize only available until the end of 2012 and a final deadline of 2014 for a reduced prize. What do you think, will the teams be able to accomplish this daunting task? Take a look at the teams and then vote!