Kathleen Burton

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA




NASA is deploying a prototype planetary rover named K9 in the Nevada
desert this week as part of an ongoing field test program designed to
simulate robotic exploration on other planets.

During the joint field operation between NASA Ames Research Center,
Moffett Field, CA, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, CA,
K9 will act as a “scout” for JPL’s rover, called FIDO. K9 will assist FIDO
by searching ahead for the best candidate rocks for it to sample. Planning
of the rover’s actions will be supported by a suite of software tools
called Viz, which were developed at Ames by the Autonomy and Robotics
group, a branch of Ames’ Computational Sciences Division. Viz uses images
from stereo cameras on-board K9 to create a photo-realistic 3D model of the
surrounding environment. This model is displayed as a virtual-reality
environment within which scientists and rover operators travel, measuring
distances and object sizes, to choose the best sampling sites and routes.

“We’ve developed a systems-oriented approach with the ability to
quickly bring diverse robotics technologies, advanced instrument designs,
and a close knit science and engineering operations team together in a
realistic field test,” said Dr. Nicola Muscettola, lead of Ames’ autonomy
and robotics group. “The FIDO-K9 project is a terrific design tool for
advancing NASA capabilities and dramatically reducing risk during future
exploration missions.”

“This type of trial has never been done before. We are learning
many new things about robotic exploration,” said Maria Bualat, project
manager for K9. The main purpose of the test is to simulate using multiple
cooperating robots in planetary exploration. The test also exposes the
Athena science team, a group of researchers from several universities
selected for the next Mars rover mission, to Ames’ science visualization
technologies. “This will allow the team to evaluate these technologies,
recommend changes and improvements, and have better capabilities when their
missions occur,” explained Bualat.

“This field test illustrates how two robots can work together to maximize
the effectiveness and science return for a planetary exploration mission,”
said Dr. Carol Stoker, Ames chief scientist for the test.”In this test, K9
is exploring for interesting things, while FIDO is performing detailed
analysis,” she said. During the tests, the FIDO science and engineering
teams are kept sequestered in the mission control room at JPL’s Planetary
Robotics Laboratory while the two rovers explore the site, whose location
is being kept secret.”The teams only see the site through the eyes of the
rovers just like it would be on a planet like Mars,” said Stoker.

The science and engineering teams “see” the remote field site
through the rover’s instruments by collecting black and white and color
panoramic images, near infrared spectra and close-up measurements at the
site, she said.

FIDO and K9 are each about the size of a St. Bernard. K9 weighs about 90
pounds and is 33 inches wide, 41 inches long, and 22 inches high. The rover
moves at an average speed of 200 meters (less than one mile) per hour over
smooth terrain. During the tests, K9 is powered both by solar panels and by
rechargeable batteries. K9 is about twice the size of Mars Pathfinder’s
“sojourner” rover and is capable of performing tasks without much human

K9 was named for the robotic assistant in the British science fiction
television series “Dr. Who.” Its chassis was built at the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory to be mechanically identical to FIDO. Its electronics, avionics,
and instruments were built at NASA Ames. “Our engineering team designed
K9’s electronics to consume very little power and to enable remote control
of the robot’s power subsystems,” said Bualat. “This allows our autonomy
software to selectively manage resources and power systems on and off,
depending on the type of operations we are performing.”

K9 is controlled through the “Virtual Dashboard,” a graphical
user interface designed and built at Ames that lets the rover operator send
single commands or build and up-link a sequence of commands. Command
sequences are up-linked to the robot over a satellite and executed
autonomously by K9’s on-board executive software. The Dashboard
automatically generates web pages, which let scientists view sequence logs
and down-linked images in real time.