2012 Prometheus Award Finalist


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A young girl sets out to prove herself by resolving a long-forgotten mystery. But when she gets close to the truth, what she thought was a harmless adventure becomes a threat to the future of the independent commercial settlements on Mars.

March 2010
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NASA Gives Opportunity Free Will

Okay, not really. But they are giving it the ability to autonomously select science targets based on general guidelines:

The new system, which NASA uploaded over the past few months, is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS and it lets Opportunity’s computer examine images that the rover takes with its wide-angle navigation camera after a drive, and recognize rocks that meet specified criteria, such as rounded shape or light color. It can then center its narrower-angle panoramic camera on the chosen target and take multiple images through color filters, NASA stated. 

AEGIS lets Opportunity look at rocks at stopping points along a single day’s drive or at the end of the day’s drive. This lets it identify and examine targets of interest that might otherwise be missed, NASA said. 

NASA said the first images taken by the Mars rover choosing its own target show a rock about the size of a football, tan in color and layered in texture. It appears to be one of the rocks tossed outward onto the surface when an impact dug a nearby crater. Opportunity pointed its panoramic camera at this unnamed rock after analyzing a wider-angle photo taken by the rover’s navigation camera at the end of a drive on March 4. Opportunity decided that this particular rock, out of more than 50 in the navigation camera photo, best met the criteria that researchers had set for a target of interest: large and dark, NASA stated. 

Cool. But while it increases the productivity of this and future rovers, it isn’t going to eliminate the utility of sending humans to explore – or their essential role in settlement which, by definition, is not something robots have the ability to do.

I’m curious as to where the developers at NASA plan to take this technology in the future. Will evolved versions allow for (for instance) faster-moving rovers capable of covering more ground instead of waiting for detailed instructions? How much serendipity or “curiosity” will be allowed in the programming – that is, how broad will the selection criteria be, how much autonomy will future rovers have to pursue their own selections, and will the process be recursive, allowing the rover to reevaluate and select new science targets based on unexpected discoveries at a previously-selected target? Imagine a fleet of small, fast, simple, mass-produced rovers with loose guidlines and broad autonomy, scattered over the surface of Mars and allowed to wander at will, subject to occasional nudges from controllers back on Earth towards features of interest.

2 comments to NASA Gives Opportunity Free Will

  • Imagine a fleet of small, fast, simple, mass-produced rovers with loose guidlines and broad autonomy, scattered over the surface of Mars and allowed to wander at will, subject to occasional nudges from controllers back on Earth towards features of interest.

    Before you have affordable ways of getting people closer in the loop, this may be the best bet for making big improvements in the productivity of Mars rovers…but why would we want to do it this way when instead we can lower a Winnebago-sized science lab from the back of a rocket-powered helicopter? 😉

    ~Jon

  • Ooh. Good point! Unfortunately, given the history of such things, the atomic Winnebago will be a one-off, too. Or maybe in this case that’s a fortunate thing – my point is that NASA doesn’t seem to fully grasp the evolution/continual incremental improvement concept with their Mars surface probes.