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Piloting a lunar rover

NASA's K10 rovers are built to navigate the lunar surface on the go, a big change from previous Mart rovers, which had to stop to calculate their movements.

At NASA Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, Calif., two K10 rovers navigate a lunar-like landscape. The K10 program is designed to help NASA do more advanced surveys and surveillance of the moon, and for the time being, the robots are being deployed in a series of similar environments across the planet. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--For a few minutes Thursday, as I steered one of NASA's K10 intelligent robots across a small field of rocky, sandy terrain, I could almost imagine myself piloting the rover across the surface of Mars or the moon.

Until, that is, I realized I had pretty much no idea what I was doing, and saw that my struggles to steer the rover forward were actually sending it backward. Given that this little robot is worth at least as much as a mid-range Mercedes, I was relieved to see the eagle-eyed scientist standing a few feet away from it as it approached a group of large rocks that could send it sprawling, a switch in his hand capable of stopping it dead in its tracks.

I was spending the afternoon at NASA's Ames Research Center here, talking with Terry Fong, the director of the Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG), about the K10 rover program--an initiative designed for remote scouting operations on the moon or Mars. To be sure, the program has been around for a few years, but Fong and his team are constantly tweaking the robots, and so what I got my hands on Thursday (remotely, at least) was a great deal more sophisticated than would have been the case just a few years ago.

We had driven out to Ames' faux lunar/Martian landscape, a 40-meters by 80-meters field of rocks and dirt tucked away in a quiet corner on the western side of the giant NASA facility. I've been to Ames many times, but this was by far the most peaceful part of the grounds I've visited: the shriek of a red-tailed hawk as it soared high overhead was the only real sound besides a gentle wind.

Fong took us into a small shed just outside a small trailer, and sitting inside was K10 "Red," one of the two rovers his team has here. It's called red because it has a big patch of red on its body. Its twin, K10 "Black" was nearby, already prowling around, lost in its own lunar fantasy, different from K10 Red only in that its body is black.

The two rovers (see video below, but be prepared for substantial wind noise) are built to travel at "human walking speed," Fong explained, and can handle between 90 percent to 95 percent of the terrain here. That includes some softball-size rocks, plenty of loose sand and dirt and even a few steep inclines. Fong allowed that some of the bigger rocks, maybe soccer ball-sized, might be a problem, and the steepest part of the incline might cause the rovers to lose traction. But in general, these are sturdy little robots built to withstand some truly out-of-this-world conditions.

According to NASA, the K10 robots are crucial elements of the space program's directive to achieve more complete investigation of the moon than was possible during the Apollo program.

"Human missions to the moon will provide numerous opportunities to advance the scientific exploration of the lunar surface," a NASA brochure about the K10 robots reads. "Initially, human exploration of the moon will be for short periods of time--no more than a few weeks per year. To make use of the time between human missions, robots can be used to perform highly repetitive and long-duration tasks, such as site-mapping and science reconnaissance.

"NASA's K10 robots are designed to be remotely operated on planetary surfaces and act as scouts for human explorers. Scouting is an essential phase of fieldwork, particularly for geology, to help establish priorities and scientific objectives. Robotic scouting can improve human exploration of the moon by providing mission planners with detailed ground-level information to supplement and complement data collected by orbiting satellites."

Imagine, in the future, the Constellation program kicks in and NASA begins sending manned missions to the moon. Fong explained that the K10s would be essential to maximizing the research that could be done in between visits by astronauts. Indeed, they could be left behind after one mission and then be deployed to gather intelligence for the next manned mission, data that could complement what NASA can see with instruments in lunar orbit.

And while the K10s I saw ran off of Lithium-Ion laptop batteries with a life of about four hours, Fong said K10s that stay on the moon could run on an ongoing basis on solar, or on power cells.

Continuous navigation
To look at them, today's K10s are unchanged since their introduction eight years ago. But pop the hood, as it were, and what you find is an ever-changing Red Hat Linux-based brain. Every few months, Fong said, he and his team replace the standard PC laptops that serve as the K10s nerve centers with newer and more powerful ones. Even considering what a top-of-the-line laptop costs, a couple new computers are pretty cheap compared to the tens of thousands of dollars' worth of lidar, navigational equipment, sun trackers--which allow the robots to figure out precisely where they are, an advantage over compasses when they're being used for field tests in far northern parts of the world--3D surveying instruments and more.

Fong said that while much about K10s remains the same today as in the past, one recent innovation has been building in the ability to process data on the go, rather than what was possible in early missions on Mars, where rovers had to stop, calculate, move, stop, calculate, move and so on. That means, he said, that now, K10s can make real-time navigation decisions, progress that means they can cover ground much faster than their predecessors.

A K10 mini, a one-fifth scale robot NASA's intelligent robots group has built. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

All told, explained Fong, a K10 robot is smart enough to figure out a path between point A and point B and determine which parts of the terrain it encounters it needs to skirt due to big rocks or other dangerous conditions.

In some cases, the IRG scientists will test the limits of what the K10 can do. Fong said that during trials last summer at the lunar-like Black Point Lava Flow, in Arizona, he and his team tweaked the K10s' algorithms so that the rovers would push on, despite confronting bush clusters that compute as rocks to be avoided.

"The robot says, 'Hey, it's rocks,' so we make it a lot more aggressive," said Fong.

Five football fields
One reason the K10s are so important to NASA is that they feature 3D laser scanners capable of surveying as much as 500 yards ahead and identifying and analyzing objects as small as pencil erasers. Similarly, the rovers carry downward pointing cameras that take very high-resolution pictures every few feet, images that can then be used to help the mission planners decide where and how to explore in the future.

Back in a lab at Ames, Fong reached into a large suitcase and pulled out what he called a K10 mini (see video below). This is a one-fifth size model rover that is an experiment to see what's possible on a much smaller scale.

The idea behind the mini rover, Fong said, was to try to understand what's possible with a robot that small. And while it's only the size of a small dog, he explained that its basic software was the same as its larger cousins, and was actually built up around the smallest Thinkpad laptop the IRG scientists could find.

And now, the IRG team is looking toward what's next for the K10s. And that, said Fong, is to determine how best to marry the rovers with human teams so that they can be used to support explorers instead of being autonomous. The Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers were built to do everything on their own, the K10s can be employed for wide ranges of tasks that aren't efficient or productive for the folks in space suits. And not only that, but because the K10s can be mounted on the lunar exploration vehicles NASA expects to send its personnel around on the moon in, they can be used for research, surveying and exploration wherever the astronauts go.

But at the same time, NASA knows they have a great deal of utility as autonomous explorers, and on the moon, which is within reasonable striking distance of the Earth, there's even less risk involved than there would be on Mars with putting the K10s through rigorous paces since, even if one got damaged, the next manned lunar mission could come and fix them.

Of course, if you're part of the IRG team, or you're an astronaut trained in operating, or working with, a rover, you probably have a lot of confidence about what the robot's limits are. Why else would anyone trust you with such an expensive toy?

For me, however, clutching that joystick back at Ames, trying to get my K10 to go right, or hop over that little rock, every wrong move seems like potential catastrophe. I think it's going to be a while before anyone lets me play with one of those thing without having a guy watching every move I make with it, ready to push his big red button to keep me from sending it sprawling and costing taxpayers a Mercedes' worth of cash. And I'm OK with that.