NASA's Multi-Robot Planetary Exploration

Multi-robot planetary exploration would be a complex affair, with humans working with a diverse team of mobile robots operating in a variety of control modes. Aurora Flight Sciences, MIT’s Manned Vehicle Laboratory (MVL), and the (somewhat ominously named) MIT Humans and Automation Laboratory (HAL) have just won a NASA Small-Business Technology Transfer Research proposal to develop a software system that performs command and control.

According to a press release issued by Aurora Flight Sciences:

“Aurora sees this as an opportunity to expand its multi-vehicle coordination capabilities into the realm of planetary exploration. We view this project as a natural integration of our expertise in space systems and in tools for planning and coordinating autonomous teams,” said Dr. James Paduano, Autonomy Controls and Estimation Group Lead.

Mobile robots operating in teams will be instrumental in extending human reach in planetary exploration, whether they are assisting humans during missions on the moon, or performing completely autonomous science on Mars. However, communication delays to remote robot teams and/or the limited supervision that an astronaut can provide make it necessary for the robot team to perform coordinated tasks robustly and autonomously. To address this problem, Aurora and MIT will combine multi-agent planning algorithms, human interfaces, and associated expertise into a multi-robot, human supervised system that can operate with long time delays between human interactive inputs, while still providing operator situation awareness sufficient for effective planning, event monitoring and notification, and interaction with specific tasks. This project extends Aurora’s multi-vehicle planning algorithms to a new regime (planetary rovers) in the context of its ongoing collaboration with NASA’s space science mission.

The system will provide ground control user interfaces and data management that:

  1. allows for interactive user control of the robot team in a time-delayed control environment
  2. maintains operator situational awareness, providing a human interface for setting up a task queue that can be autonomously executed with limited/no human interaction
  3. allows the multi-robot team to optimize task performance as geospatial, navigation and other sensor information is gathered, and
  4. is supported by recent algorithm and software developments in the military multi-vehicle control regime (including human interfaces).
Science fiction writers have long recognized the value of having teams of planetary exploration robots that would cooperate with each other and work with people in various control modes. I think I can see something on the ol' visiplate now...

"Look, that robot, DV-5, has six robots under it. And not just under it - they're part of it..."

He watched the posturings of the robots on the visiplate. They were bronzy gleams of smooth motion against the shadowy crags of the airless asteroid. There was a marching formation now, and in their own dim body light, the rough-hewn walls of the mine tunnel swam past noiselessly, checkered with misty erratic blobs of shadow. They marched in unison, seven of them, with Dave at the head. They wheeled and turned in macabre simultaneity; and melted through changes of formation with the weird ease of chorus dancers in Lunar Bowl.
(The robot team from Isaac Asimov's story Catch That Rabbit [1944])

If you're as interested in team robotics as NASA, don't miss reading how the COTS Scout: Team Building Robot works well with others, and this story about Robotic Safety Barrels: Smart Traffic Cones. Sometimes you might want robots that don't play well with others; read more about the DoD's efforts in Multi-Robot Pursuit System: We'll Be Back!.

From Aurora Flight Sciences Wins NASA Contract for Multi-Robot Planetary Exploration.

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