A new computer tool, like a precursor of the fictional ‘holodeck’ of Star
Trek fame, but much smaller, can record ‘chunks’ of time.

The new device, under development at NASA’s Ames Research Center in
California’s Silicon Valley, allows engineers to play ‘what-if’ games with
computerized spacecraft and other objects. Using personal computers
networked to much larger machines, researchers can repeatedly play back
chunks of time and study them on a computer monitor, examining details such
as views of spacecraft from various angles, temperatures, vibrations,
sounds and data from sensors that computers have recorded.

“If something is broken on a spacecraft like the International Space
Station, you can troubleshoot the problem ‘virtually,’ using new
information technologies to do it quicker and more accurately,” said
project leader Robert Mah, of NASA Ames. “You can wander through
data-enriched 3-D models on the computer screen to see how you can fix the
spacecraft. This ability may help astronauts step through important,
time-critical repairs more easily in a how-to format,” he explained.

“We call our new tool the ‘virtual iron bird,'” he said. An iron bird is an
engineering term for a physical model of an aircraft used in part to verify
an airplane’s systems. In contrast, the new computer tool creates a
non-physical iron bird model within a computer’s memory that engineers can
use equally well to analyze past events or test machines before they are
ever built.

The computer interface enables recording of pictures, sounds and
statistics, such as temperatures, vibrations and other measurements that
could come from a host of sensors or computer programs. These many elements
produce a rich record of a section of time or a simulated future time. The
tool works like a ‘souped-up’ computer-aided design, computer-aided
machining (CAD-CAM) program that can link to databases of statistics, 3-D
models of machines and numerous other computer programs that add fine
detail to the ‘time chunk’ and the objects within it.

“The power of the new tool derives from its ability to pull data and
actions from many other pieces of software to produce these chunks of time
that are more complete than a mere video or sound recording,” said Mah.
“This virtual iron bird system promises to grow in capability as the
connected computers and programs become stronger over the years.”

“There are a number of advantages to the virtual iron bird tool,” said
Richard Papasin, a computer scientist working on the project at NASA Ames.
“You can have engineering teams all over the country and the world. Without
traveling, team members can use the Internet to see how potential changes
could affect the object. A second advantage is that developing a virtual
model in computer memory costs much less than a real model. A real mock-up
can cost as much as one tenth of the cost of developing a new airplane or
spacecraft,” Papasin explained.

“The virtual iron bird would minimize risk,” Mah said. “Finding and solving
a dangerous problem before construction of a new vehicle could save lives.
Also, the virtual iron bird would make the development and operation of
complex systems much more efficient.”

In addition, scientists can use the new tool to record many details of an
experiment in a chunk of time, and then replay the experiment repeatedly to
analyze it. Scientists envision that the virtual iron bird will be used to
record life science, materials processing and other types of experiments as
they occur inside of spacecraft. A rich recording of the details of those
important chunks of time would be extremely valuable, Mah said.

“The virtual iron bird could even be used to monitor the operation of real
systems in real time,” Mah said. “This would also provide monitoring
capabilities at remote sites such as universities and other interested
government agencies.”

“We are developing a natural language speech interface that will allow
users to ask the computer questions, and manipulate chunk-of-time
recordings of real or simulated events. We also are developing smart
diagnostic tools that scientists and engineers can use to pinpoint problems
within complex machines or systems,” he added. “We are adding ‘haptic
feedback’ that will let you feel resistance, when you use a computer mouse
or joystick. Haptic feedback will make the new tool useful as a training
aid for astronauts. They will be able to practice with time chunk
recordings of real or simulated spacecraft.”

“We are starting an effort to develop a virtual iron bird of the entire
International Space Station complex, starting with Node 2 that connects the
modules being built by the international partners,” Mah said.

“We are developing a generic capability that runs on a desktop PC or a
laptop computer connected to a larger computer,” Mah said. “All you have to
do is input CAD-CAM, database, sensor information and as many other details
as you can about a spacecraft to start doing ‘what-if’ scenarios.”

“Just about any engineering or scientific project you can think of could
use a capability like this,” Papasin said.

“This new tool even could provide an archive of the huge amount of
information that long programs, sometimes 20 years in length, accumulate,”
Papasin said. “Researchers later could examine the evolution of projects
using the virtual iron bird.”

NASA Ames computer engineers are now testing the preliminary version of the
virtual iron bird tool with a centrifuge design that is under development
for the Space Station. The centrifuge will create artificial gravity in
compartments that scientists can use to test life forms in less than
one-gravity conditions.

There is more information on the World Wide Web about the iron bird project