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NASA To Test Computer 'Mobile Agents' And Helper Robots

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Moffett Field - Mar 31, 2004
NASA is testing intelligent 'mobile agent' software this week that some day may help astronaut-robot teams on Mars to communicate with Earth.

Playing the role of astronauts, two researchers will carry 'smart' computers that can talk with a prototype robot during a test on April 1, in a 'Marscape' at NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley.

The 'astronauts' will carry laptop computers equipped with 'mobile agent' software that scientists say will improve communications between robots, human planetary explorers and mission control on Earth. The helper robot taking part in the test is called the 'Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Robotic Assistant.' Other team members will be in a nearby building simulating a Mars habitat communications hub.

"We're putting all the parts together in a shake-down to look for glitches," said Bill Clancey, principal investigator for the mobile agent software project at NASA Ames. "During Apollo missions to the moon, astronauts continuously talked with mission control in Houston. But during our test, each person is carrying a laptop computer in a backpack. These computers include 'personal agent' software that can literally speak with the human 'explorers,'" Clancey explained.

'Mobile agent' software comes in several types, including 'personal agent' software -- software to which people can speak -- and 'com' software that links software and hardware devices. Ames researcher Maarten Sierhuis will manage the mobile agent-robot test that will include at least a dozen other researchers.

In the last week of April and the first week of May, the team, including the computerized mobile agents, the researchers and the robot, will travel to Utah's Southeast Desert near Hanksville, at the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station for a field test. During the field trip, 'astronaut explorers' will use the mobile agent system to conduct real science.

"They will be looking for geological evidence of past water in the desert. In the area, there also are many fossils from the Jurassic Period," Clancey said.

"The key thing is that the explorer will talk with the computer mobile agent software about science observations being made," Clancey said. "There are three specifics that the explorer relays to the agent - the name of the location, which sample bag the explorer is using to collect samples, and a narration of contents of the bag and the geologic context."

During future planetary exploration, this kind of data will be relayed by personal agent software to others on the science team, both on the planet's surface and back on Earth, according to Clancey. Information will be stored in a database in a Mars or planetary human habitat.

The personal agent software will send this data via e-mail to the Earth-bound science team. The software also automatically will transmit images taken by the astronauts to their planetary habitat and to Earth.

The computer that astronaut-explorers will carry will include a global positioning system device. The agents will stamp the collected data with time and location.

"The astronaut explorers can tell the agents what activity they are going to do next," Clancey said. "The astronauts will choose activities from a menu of potential planned subjects."

The chosen activity sets up expectations for the personal agent software about where the explorer should be and how long the activity should continue. If the astronaut deviates from the plan or the planned location, or stays too long, the personal agent software will verbally warn the astronaut. At the same time, the computer agent will send e-mail to the support team on Earth and to another computer agent in the habitat, which will announce on the habitat's loudspeaker that there is a possible problem, Clancey said.

During a mission, the astronaut explorers will wear biosensors, which will detect and transmit human vital signs to his or her personal agent software. If vital signs are not normal, the agent will send e-mail to Earth, "and a loudspeaker will blare warning information in the habitat," Clancey said.

The helper robot, which responds to voice commands, was developed at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston. The astronaut speaks through a microphone to his or her personal agent software that relays commands to the robot's personal agent software. This software activates computer programs that control the robot and its movements. This robot can follow astronauts and, if needed, can take photographs and carry samples.

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NASA Testing K9 Rover In Granite Quarry For Future Missions
Moffett Field - Oct 31, 2003
NASA scientists and engineers are testing new technologies using the K9 rover in a granite quarry near Watsonville, Calif., in preparation for future missions to Mars.

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