NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have for the first time programmed a computer-driven planetary rover to traverse 100 meters of rugged natural terrain without human guidance.

The test in September was considered a significant milestone in development of a semiautonomous navigation system for a planet-roving vehicle which would precede any manned mission to another planet.

The rover, called "Robby," by the experimenters, covered the 100 meters in about 4 hours and 20 minutes, moving cautiously about two meters at a time, then stopping to survey ahead another two meters.

The test course was in the rugged Arroyo Seco dry river bed adjacent to the JPL site in Pasadena, Calif. The end of the course was not in the vehicle's stereo vision. It was obscured by foliage and rocks and no information about the specific terrain was provided to the testbed computer.

But by using the stereo television cameras, Robby surveyed the area and made its own map, two meters at a time. When it encountered a flat plane, it proceeded directly towards the goal; when it encountered an obstacle, it made a new map and modified its path to go around it, rather than over it.

The unprecedented accomplishment was that the vehicle's stereo ranging perceived the terrain in three dimensions, and its artificial intelligence planned, without human help, a safe path to its goal, all within a power and volume compatible with the onboard resources of a Mars surface vehicle.

In order to complete the 100-meter semiautonomous navigation milestone, the engineers had to integrate sensing, perception, planning and control into the self-contained vehicle. The long-range technology development goal is to go 20 kilometers, about 13 miles, in one day.

The overall program goals are to develop the technology to enable planetary surface transportation with unmanned science and exploration rovers, along with mining and construction vehicles. Vehicles such as Robby, but space-qualified and even smarter, would cross the red, rocky wastes of Mars to find safe paths for future visits by space-traveling men and women.

The work was performed by JPL in cooperation with NASA's Office of Aeronautics, Exploration and Technology.

Eds: A photo of the testbed vehicle in the Arroyo is available through the JPL Public Information Office.

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