How do you control a robot that’s literally millions of miles away? Not in real time, that’s for sure. A radio signal can take as much as 30 minutes to reach Mars (the time varies depending upon Earth’s orbit relative to the red planet). So NASA engineers created a unique solution to help them maneuver the Curiosity rover.
First, the Mars Science Laboratory has stereoscopic cameras built in, so essentially it can see in 3D. In fact, the rover is constantly building 3D maps of its surroundings — looking for hazards to avoid. This is a crucial new ability that helps NASA drivers on Earth manipulate the rover with less problems than before.
In fact, the technique could be called the ultimate use of video game technology. The robot sends 3D images of its surroundings back to NASA where the entire Martian environment is simulated virtually using the NVIDIA Quadro workstation graphics card and a pair of active-shutter LCD 3D Vision glasses.
This virtual view — known as the Robot Sequencing and Visualization Program — provides the next best thing to being there. NASA rover drivers (there are 14 in all) can then plan the rover’s moves ahead of time and simulate any obstacles that Curiosity may encounter along the way.
Two times a day the team communicates with Curiosity. (Remember that the current delay time is about 14 minutes, so to send a single command takes a half hour until one receives confirmation that the rover received it and understood.) On a typical day, the rover might move as much as 130 feet.
For parents who worried that their children playing video games might amount to nothing, this is a novel use for the technology. Too bad it’s not included as part of XBox 360 Kinect’s free Curiosity game “Mars Rover Landing”.
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