Robot to aid NASA missions

Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center are developing a softball-sizerobot that will accompany astronauts on future space shuttle missions, enablingcrew members to work more quickly and more efficiently.

The robot, being developed under Ames' Personal Satellite Assistant (PSA)program (ic-www.arc.nasa.gov/ic/psa), will function as a multipurpose tool,performing such tasks as monitoring shuttle systems and transmitting livevideo images of experiments to scientists on Earth.

The robot will enable crew members to work more quickly and accomplish more,according to Yuri Gawdiak, principal investigator for the project. "Thecrew workload is tremendous," Gawdiak said. "There's been a driving needto try to augment the crew somehow, just since the inception of the [shuttle]program."

Ames researchers want the robot to respond primarily to voice commands,carrying out chores and allowing shuttle scientists conducting manuallyintensive experiments to stay focused on their work. For example, the robotmight hook into a wireless network aboard the shuttle to retrieve and thendisplay data scientists need.

Using a built-in camera, the robot also could serve as a mobile camera forvideoconferences with NASA staff members on the ground or for helping astronautsto see around corners when moving large or cumbersome objects on board theshuttle.

Gawdiak said the battery-operated robot, using built-in sensors, also couldhelp astronauts monitor their environment, verifying the readings of sensorsbuilt in to the shuttle that are used for monitoring oxygen and pressurelevels.

"We kind of see it as a being on patrol while the crew is asleep," he said."It would be monitoring the spacecraft." He said that crew members alsomay need a team of perhaps three robots for some shuttle tasks, such astriangulating the location of a pressure leak.

Moreover, a robot could serve as an inventory manager, counting or locatingpieces of equipment by means of radio frequencies and special tags attachedto the equipment.

The inspiration for the PSA project came from more than one source, accordingto Gawdiak. In 1996, experiments with wireless networks on board the Russianspace station Mir and a space shuttle showed the promise of sharing informationquickly in a spacecraft. Some astronauts and scientists also had been eagerto develop a device similar to the "tricorder" seen on the 1960s science-fictionTV show "Star Trek": a small, portable device that could give a user instantreadings about an area's gas composition, temperature and air pressure.Because the robot will have to navigate in low gravity, Ames researchershave provided six small fans that will guide the robot around the shuttleas needed, with a built-in gyroscope that makes sure the robot moves oraims its camera in the right direction.

So far, the robot is in the developmental stage, Gawdiak said. Researchershave created a prototype and this summer ran it through a computer-simulatedtest. Gawdiak said researchers continue to come up with ideas for improvingthe PSA and hope to see it equipped with an arm that will enable it to performeven more tasks.

Researchers also want the robot to make some of its own decisions, suchas planning ahead to gather supplies for an upcoming experiment. NASA researchers,however, predict that it may be as long as two years before a PSA travelson board a space shuttle.

Robotics observers say that robots could play an important role in spacemissions, especially ones in which conditions may be hazardous.

"I think it's very important. It's something we've looked at for years ?how to use them in a way to lessen the risk to the humans involved in thespace missions," said Carol Collins, chairwoman of the mathematics departmentat Drury College in Springfield, Mo.

"I think that this personal assistant is going to be another step in thedirection to really help reduce the risk to humans involved in the space mission and allow them to accomplish a lot more science during their mission," said Collins, who became involvedin flight software and robotics projects while working at NASA's Jet PropulsionLaboratory.

Jeanne Dietsch, vice president of ActivMedia Robotics LLC, said researchersmay face their biggest challenges in making the robot respond to voice commandsand in determining how much decision-making power it should have.

"What you have to decide is: What are the humans going to control and whatare the robots going to control?" she said.

Dietsch added that the robots that exist today may not be as useful as peoplebelieve. "They can do a lot less than what people think they can do," shesaid. " 'Star Wars' has created some unattainable expectations."

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