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Groundhog Day at NASA-Ames: Episode 2, Live at the Roverscape!

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(NASA Social 2/2/15 State of NASA)

Before launching (pun intended) into this installment, I have to note some disappointing news from the European Space Agency’s ATV-5 mission. Due to a power issue, they decided not to do the shallow-angle reentry, which would require the vehicle to be in flight for an extra week or more after deploying from the ISS. Instead, it completed its mission in a more typical reentry maneuver, earlier today (Sunday, Feb. 15th ). Oh, well, the astronauts saved the new NASA monitoring instrument aboard the ISS for use in a future mission.  But it was not like we had anticipated. To cope with the loss, enjoy some NASA imagery from the reentry of Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft.

Blue Skies on the Roverscape

Terry Fong with NASA Social Team:  Blue Skies Over the Roverscape

Once we’re done with the agency-wide event of the morning, we find our way to the dazzling outdoors and distribute ourselves between a shuttle van and a minivan with our NASA team and a service-dog-in-training, and we’re off to the Roverscape.

Welcome to the Roverscape

Welcome to the Roverscape

I’m figuring we’ll get a few canned presentations about the rovers that roam that dirt lot, climbing its artificial hills and avoiding its alignements of obstacle-rocks. And I’m psyched for that. At Ames’ 75th-anniversary Open House, it was a crowd-fighting challenge to catch a glimpse of the rover patrolling on the other side of the barbed-wire-topped fence, subject to remote-control by a NASA roboteer hiding in plain sight under a pop-up tent in the parking lot.

But no. It’s not a presentation in the parking lot.

On arrival, our NASA Social Team quickly demonstrates thinking, writing, photographing, and connecting.

On arrival, our NASA Social Team quickly demonstrates thinking, writing, photographing, and connecting.

Now, presentations are nice. But the thing is, if you’re at a NASA Social, you feel like you have to be tweeting and posting the whole time and it’s been pretty thoroughly proven that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Which means while you’re tweeting and posting you’re missing stuff. Some folks handle that by simply recording presentations—you know, like the Real Media do. My strategy is to free-type notes, but that’s pretty dependent on having mad touch-typing skills. In any case, you don’t actually get much chance to interact with the people you’re there to learn from. Plus, for the presenters, gawd, there is nothing more tedious than being dragged away from your work to give a presentation to a bunch of people who seem to be playing video games and are not prepared to ask you questions.

So today the Ames Media Relations Gang are trying out a new idea.

The Clue-In & Reverse PhotoOp

The Elevator Pitch for The Elevator Pitch System, Featuring Today’s Reverse Photo Op

 

They have rounded up a bevy of NASA engineers & scientists associated with seven different project groups. Each group has chosen a representative to give a three-minute “elevator pitch”.  That would be either a) the one person who wasn’t there when the rep was chosen or b) a team leader who actually likes talking to groups. Then the social-media herd will be set free to scatter among the projects that have sparked their interest.

This is an experiment that works well on several levels. First, the quick-posting tweeters get snippets of video of the pitch presentations & those are up on YouTube in nanosecs.  Second, at first, the attendees naturally focus on projects that interest them the most. Third, because everyone’s free to wander, attendees also wander over to chat with folks whose topics weren’t as appealing at first. That means people discover new things. And they’re more likely to get excited about new discoveries. Fourth, because it becomes nearly a one-to-one discussion format, questions are livelier, connections are made, and, fundamentally, everyone has a better time.

The sole downside is, for an old-school note-taker like me, it’s tough to shoot photos & video, listen, ask sensible questions, and get notes written down. Gives you some respect for the professional media, eh, what? I’m envying that old-style team of reporter + photographer.

I tried to chat with every group. Very nearly made it, too.  So, with rough notes supported by follow-up research, my photos, and the power of memory…

Target #1: Big Giant Roverbots!

First off, I headed right for Terry Fong and the K-REX robot that was actively surveying the Roverscape.  Strangely, no one else was chatting with him yet. Maybe they were scared off by his position as Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group, aka King of the Roverscape. But, seriously, Terry Fong is one the most personable robotics experts you can talk to, and others quickly joined me. It was quickly evident that what people wanted were photos of the rover, so he suggested good shooting angles, led small groups close enough for the rover to demonstrate its detection-and-avoidance behavior, and (near the end of the event) asked his crew to go to RC mode for a bit so the rover wouldn’t trundle away so determinedly.

Ta-ta now, prospectors

Howdy, Prospector Bot K-REX

Where Be the Water?

Where Be the Water?

The current design mission for the K-REX (which is the upsized younger sibling of the workhorse K-10 robot platform) is developing prospecting tools and algorithms. For survey missions, the rover can use a variety of tools from ground-penetrating radar to its 3-D GigaPan camera. But the hot topic of the moment is seeking water ice under the surface, for Lunar and Mars missions. But how do you “see” underground water?  Robots, not being prone to faith-based data acquisition (or confidence tricks), aren’t good at dowsing. But water contains hydrogen, and each hydrogen nucleus (i.e., a single proton) is just the right size for interacting with a neutron in a measurable way. If you fire neutrons into the ground, they’ll penetrate about a meter, while bouncing around among the component atoms. Eventually, some will bounce back out of the surface. Ones that have only hit large, heavy atoms will be flying at close to their original velocity. But the neutrons that have struck hydrogen atoms will be slowed down significantly. The HYDRA neutron spectroscope detects the relative fraction of slowed-down neutrons and reports high hydrogen concentrations. Lots of hydrogen almost certainly means H2O. The team recently took their rover on a practice mission to search for water in the Mohave desert.

Rovin the Scape

Will K-REX find water under the pebble patch?

One factor they are teaching the robots to work around is the varied character of the surface of the ground, so at the Roverscape, there are test patches of gravel, smooth pebbles, sand, and even shale rocks with smooth surfaces and jagged edges.

Couldn’t resist snagging some video of the rover at work:

 

Target #2: Makers of the Three (or More) Rules of Flying Robots

At the far end of the row of tents were a couple of guys with, sadly, no active robots to play with. And no one hanging around asking them questions. So, ever happy to avoid a crowd, I left Terry and made a bee line for their display. And discovered the team working to protect us all from wild mobs of flying robots clogging our skies. No, seriously, have you not worried what’s up with drones these days? Anyone can pick one up on Amazon and start zooming about. There have already been legal cases with “peeping tom” drones. And towns arguing about whether or not to legalize shooting down drones above, say, your ranch property. More prosaically, but even more seriously, a drone wandering into airspace populated with passenger airplanes poses serious safety issues. Back in the early days of airplanes, there were similar issues of privacy, rights of transit, and safety.

In his State of NASA address, Charles Bolden trotted out the NASA aero mantra, “NASA is with you when you fly”.  Did you know that on top of cool aero hardware, NASA has been involved in air traffic control & collision avoidance? Now it’s time for UAV traffic controls. In big words, we’re talking: Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM). This mission involves devising both regulations and technology, because UAV’s need to be smart enough to “know” the rules and to recognize and avoid “forbidden” space.

The timeline is short, as the drones are already out there—with lots of useful and fun applications but just as many problematic situations—so the plan is to have essential systems for safe airspace in place within five years. NASA UAV Traffic Control The proposed solution space incorporates static elements (“geofencing” to tag keep-out zones) and drone smarts (to detect geofences and manage routing) to build, by stages, a comprehensive system allowing for autonomous operations which maintain secure areas and safe travel.

I only wish they’d been able to have a live drone to play with and illustrate their points. Because, you know, objects in flight.

Target #3:  The One I Missed, But Oh, Well, Didya Know…?

The guys next door had a huge UAV on their table, but, well, it was popular. I never did get to talk to them about it. Luckily Tokiwa Smith (@Tokiwana–follow her on Twitter, ok?) tweeted a good photo, so I was able to ID that fierce flyer as FrankenEye, a hybrid creation built largely by a group of student interns using parts from the NASA Dragon Eye UAV’s and their own 3-D printed parts.

It's FrankenEye:  A project student interns got to work on!

It’s FrankenEye: A project student interns got to work on! (Courtesy of NASA)

So, this is a good place to mention that NASA has a tremendous internship program.  The robotics programs alone at Ames pull in a dozen or more interns every summer. There are openings for liberal-arts students as well as engineers & scientists. And there are year-round internships as well. The best place to get connected with NASA internships all around the country is a single website, OSSI.  There are spots for high-schoolers, undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs, all with one application. However, if you (or a student you know) are in commute distance of any NASA site, check their website for a local internship. For example, at Ames there is the Education Associates Program  (supported by funding from USRA)

 

Target #4:  Innovative Bots Based On Baby Toys. Seriously.

Next up: the tensegrity bots, a NASA research project which has involved university students and professors from Ghent University to UC-Berkeley to Case Western Reserve.  We got our introduction from Vitas SunSpiral, a Stanford-trained innovator whose company is a contractor for the IRG.  Yes–one way to work “for NASA” is to work for a company that works with NASA.

Meet the Tensegrity Team

Meet the Tensegrity Team

These folks are thinking so far outside the box that there isn’t any box left. They’re most fascinated by designing structures with great flexibility, analogous to our own flexible spines and spring-loaded tendons and joints. For their inspiration, they’ve turned to the toy universe: remember those springy rattles or balls made of sticks and elastics?  At the Open House, I’d seen the large prototype that they’re sharing at this event as well as a prototype Berkeley students had built using LEGO Mindstorms. (SunSpiral told me that excited kids at the Open House partly disassembled the LEGO version.) They’ve even dubbed this design a “Super Ball Bot”, reflecting the nature of the device is to be “bouncy” in a flexibility sense (and it also works as a pun on the robotics event “Bot Ball”, though I’m not sure that’s intentional). The Ball Bot moves by adjusting tension in cables connecting the rods in response to dynamic pressure signals transmitted through this physical network. The result is a slow rolling peregrination. Theoretically, this device is its own safety net: it could roll to the edge of a cliff, drop down, and land safely. Eventually, a payload can be added, suspended in the middle of the “ball” and protected by the springy structure of its un-legs.

Here’s a fun video the team posted a while back of their Super Ball Bot in development, concluding with a demo run right here at the Roverscape:

Target #5:  Making Robots Take Charge of Their Own Health

OK, there were people nearby showing off tiny satellites, but I needed a big-robot fix again. The guys from the “Health and Prognostics” group were displaying an older-style roverbot with a laptop perched on top of it.

Health and Prognostics for Optimal Mission Success

“Health and Prognostics for Optimal Mission Success”   What? Huh?

 

What’s this all about? Health? Is this a bot that helps keep people healthy? I can tell from some of my fellow NASA Socialistas that this is the first-line guess, because that’s how they tag the first photos they tweet.

But, well, no. The “Health” under consideration here is the device’s own health. For this prototype, the robot assesses the status of its battery packs and then has to decide if it’s up to completing the mission it’s been assigned:  driving an assigned path and returning to base. It may need to eliminate some waypoints to safely complete at least the most critical stops on its route and skip the lower-priority stops. Consider that an autonomous survey rover on the Moon or Mars must be able to get itself back to its charging station and still make the cost of its construction and deployment worth the investment.   The laptop on this robot is displaying its “thoughts” as it assesses its assigned route and redesigns that route in response to having one of its battery units disconnected in a recent experimental expedition around the streets right near the Roverscape.

But, wait, there’s more! To do this job well takes more than an instantaneous measure of how the batteries are doing. This crew has tested batteries to build a system which predicts battery status in the course of the mission—that’s the “Prognostics” in the heading.  And that’s also information that is already set to be applied in batteries for electric cars–because this robot uses the same batteries.

It’s unfortunate that the nomenclature leads to a natural confusion here. This is a new field in systems engineering, one that truly sounds like something to do with medicine: Integrated Systems Health Management, or ISHM.  I’d’ve picked a different word than “health”, but systems engineers have used that term for so long, it would have been hard to change.  In any case, what’s important (and, analogous to biological health) is that it’s all about maintaining systems, and in this context a “diagnosis” isn’t determining the cause of a rash but more like asking a smart device, like, say, the starship Enterprise, to give itself a check-up, that is:  “run diagnostics.” This has applications in any area with multiple components with failure potential. Here, we’re seeing it applied to an exploration rover system.

Target #6: Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites

OK, as I plunge over the 2,000-word line, check out those little cubes that Astronaut Scott Kelly is playing with here.  I only got to look around the shoulders of others talking to the SPHERES crew, but I got the gist just fine.

Astronaut Kelly plays with SPHERES (Courtesy of NASA)

Astronaut Kelly juggles SPHERES (Courtesy of NASA)

First of all, they’re not cubes, they’re SPHERES.  Yes, clearly the acronym was assembled to be cute. But the job of these babies is cool:  they are flying ISS helper bots designed to be used as test beds for small satellite designs which include satellites which can work together to perform tasks in space. They’ve been under constant development since their first flight in 2006.  The original-style SPHERES in this photo aren’t really being juggled, they’re navigating within the ISS using echolocation, using fixed-position ultrasound transmitters in the ISS to establish their location and relative positions.  The most recent versions are “SmartSPHERES” equipped with smartphones  to communicate rapidly and enable image-taking and provide potential for vision-based navigation.

The resemblance of the SPHERES bots to the “remote” droids in the Start Wars franchise is no accident: the original SPHERES were designed by MIT students in response to a challenge from their professor to build him one of those droids.  Since then, the SPHERES have continued to be influenced by students, as students have been able to “fly” by writing programs for SPHERES to execute.

An interesting recent series of experiments involved using a pair of SPHERES to cooperatively rotate a canister of fluid to study the way fluids slosh in microgravity. This is not just an academic exercise. Sloshing behavior affects the way fuel behaves during spacecraft maneuvers. Here’s a little NASA video of one sloshing experiment (And YouTube will happily point you to more like this.):  

Target #7: Teeny-Tiny Satellites

I could see others moving towards the exit (and some groups packing up their displays), but I squeezed in a quick conversation with one of the CubeSat team members. What the heck’s a CubeSat, did I hear you say? Well, CubeSat is a modular design for a nanosatellite (i.e., a really small satellite).  Each CubeSat is composed of a specific number of same-sized cubical “units”.  Oh, and though the SPHERES bots look like cubes, a CubeSat “unit” is actually meant to be cubical: nominally 10x10x10 cm (though if you nit-pick, the specs come out closer to 10x10x11cm).   A CubeSat is assembled as 1 or 2 or 3 such “units”, with 6-unit and 12-unit cubesats in the works.  Look at it this way:  a 3U CubeSat is a bit smaller than a 12-pack of soda…roughly the size of a standard roll of paper towels.  The beauty of the small and modular design is that it opens up satellite-building to students, small businesses, and even hobbyists (though not everyone will score a launch ride with NASA).

You don’t launch a CubeSat from Earth. You launch it from space, by hitching a ride up to the ISS (or further) and having it slung from there to its desired orbit. When Orion runs its test flight to the Moon and back in 2017, it’s hoped that a few CubeSats will be able to hitch a ride and be launched from the orbit of the moon, for placement further from Earth.  For instance, solar physicists would love to see an array of little satellites spread out around the sun, so they could see the activity over the entire solar surface at one time.

My captive researcher was was happy to talk but eager to get going as well, because she’s involved in an important test scheduled for “very soon”.

TES-4 Coming Down Soon

TechEdSat-3 (a 3U CubeSat) was the first test of an Exo-Brake.                           TES-4 is coming down in February 2015

We’d like to be able to send small payloads to Earth. So far, the final parachute drop has been tested. The ability to communicate with the microsat during transit, using the the Iridium satellite network (yep, the smartphone network) for rapid interactive data handling has had testing, and we know how to pop the device out from the ISS. The exo-brake is a parachute designed for use in the low-density upper reaches of the atmosphere to steer the payload on the right course until regular parachutes can be deployed.  The upcoming test is the deployment and descent of TES-4, a CubeSat project involving San Jose State University students.  They’ll be testing the latest exo-brake and applying the Iridium communications system.

And then, finally, the call came for us all to exit the Roverscape. I walked backward and took the time for one last photo of K-REX before scrambling back aboard our vans for the ride back to the Exploration Center.

Ta-ta now, prospectors

Ta-ta now, prospectors

Welcome to the Roverscape

Farewell,  Roverscape

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