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Robots are making progress on space exploration, along with billionaires
Jul 21, 2021

Robots are making progress on space exploration, along with billionaires

Before they explore Mars, the robots explore Martian-like caves on Earth first.

High profile trips by billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have more people thinking about the future of space tourism. There’s a long way to go before that’s common, but one destination for would-be space explorers is Mars. And right now, NASA scientists are working on robots to help explore more of the planet first.

Ali Agha, a principal investigator and research technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is testing a fleet of robots, including the Boston Dynamics one known as Spot, by sending them into caves in Northern California. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ali Agha, a principal investigator and research technologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Ali Agha, a principal investigator and research technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Courtesy Agha)

Ali Agha: When these robots are tasked to explore these challenging environments, they do require high levels of autonomy. They need to make decisions on their own, because soon they might go out of the communication range. Especially when they’re exploring caves, they lose communication to the astronauts, or to the orbiter, or lander on the surface. At the same time, carrying enough instruments and sensors is not easy, because the amount of sensors that you need to carry might not allow for a single robot to carry out the mission. So what we do is we distribute sensing capabilities — let’s say, simply ears on one robot, eyes on another robot, so that together, they can satisfy the requirements of this complex mission and autonomously go hundreds of meters into a cave, and search for what we need to find and then come back to the surface.

Kimberly Adams: And so I guess, that allows them to be a little bit smaller and more nimble to fit into nooks and crannies.

Agha: The robot really needs to crouch at some points or really fit itself into these passages to be able to go through and get to more interesting areas of the cave.

Adams: How much does it cost NASA to use these robots?

Agha: So at the moment, NASA’s investment on legged platforms and full autonomous systems are on the research and development side. At the moment, it’s in the orders of hundreds of thousands of dollars per project to push the technology forward, to learn from it, but when they become a mission, like the Mars rover mission, with all the launch and safety-critical aspects of the project, it’s a totally different scale of the investment.

Adams: Right? Because you can buy a Spot robot “off the shelf” for $75,000. I’m guessing your robots are a bit more advanced than that.

Agha: Correct, so we have the Spot robot that comes from Boston Dynamics as the base of the locomotion. And on top of that, we put the payload, meaning the processors, sensors and capabilities that allow this robot to make decisions on its own when it’s out of the communication range. If you look at the whole system that we have, the robot and payload, it triples the cost of the robot from Boston Dynamics.

Adams: I know we’re talking about applications on a planet like Mars, but how might this technology help things out here on Earth?

Agha: A lot of technologies we develop do have direct applications on Earth. Great example is, if you remember, a few years ago we had Thailand boys who got stuck in a cave, and the whole world were trying to help and rescue them. And there was really a need for robotic capabilities that you can send and they can map the cave and say, ‘OK, this is the location. This is what it takes to get there.’ That’s just one example. Mining industry, oil and gas industry, agriculture, search and rescue, all these applications sectors can benefit from robotic systems and autonomy.

A landscape portrait of the Lava Bed National Park.
Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California, where NASA conducted its Spot experiments. (Courtesy Team CoSTAR).

Adams: When you go to these sites, does it kind of feel almost like you’re an astronaut yourself? 

Agha: Oh, especially for technologists like me or the engineers, these are amazing experiences. Some of these caves, if you turn off the headlight on your helmet, it’s pitch black. You basically see nothing. There’s zero light, there’s zero communication. And yes, once you’re there, you really feel it’s out of this world.

Adams: You were telling me what the experiment was, but did it work? What did you find out?

Agha: Our latest mission was a big success for us. The robots were able to go hundreds of meters into the cave, and we were able to verify that the endurance that we were looking for, as well as the capability of traversing these rocket terrains and getting to the hundreds of meters into the cave to detect signs of life, record those and bring it back to the surface.

Related Links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

Check out the video below of the Boston Dyanmics robots exploring caves in Northern California. They bend, crouch and crawl halfway up walls, depending on what’s needed to fit in certain places, or assess an interesting location.

It does indeed look otherwordly.

This video, produced by Boston Dynamics, shows a behind-the-scenes look at the NASA Spot robot and its exploration of the Lava Bed National Park.

And, of course, you can learn more about the Bezos and Branson trips to the upper atmosphere. CBS has a good breakdown on the differences between the two flights, including that Bezos’ Blue Origin team reached more than 62 miles above Earth.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic team didn’t get quite that high, but he did go first, whatever that’s worth.

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