One Giant Maybe for Robotkind

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, July 1997

One Giant Maybe for Robotkind

As NASA heads for Mars, its remote-control rovers spin their wheels
By Eric Scigliano

For The Record

No, Really, We Want to Believe You
When Senator Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, says things like, "My goal is to find creative ways to conserve our public lands," it's tough for environmentalists not to cringe. Still, the notoriously brown Alaska Republican has in fact started aggressively lobbying for money for state parks and urging people to "rediscover the great outdoors." Murkowski is asking appropriators to spend at least $25 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an account designed to invest oil-lease revenues in public-land acquisition and park infrastructure, arguing that hanging on to the fund's $900 million annual haul as a means of deflating the deficit is both bad for the planet and bad fiscal policy. But can this new, nature-happy Murkowski be trusted? Environmentalists, wary of ulterior motives but thankful for help from an unexpected quarter, are cautiously optimistic. "On its face it does seem like a positive first step," says Wilderness Society spokesperson Rindy O'Brien. "But at the risk of sounding paranoid, I would like to see something in writing."

How Now, Cash Cow?
Like many of the medal favorites who flamed out at the '96 Olympics, American kayaker Scott Shipley (above) searched long and hard for solace after his disappointing 12th-place finish in the solo whitewater event. "I told myself, OK, I had a bad run, but in another 1,423 days I'll get to do it again," says the 26-year-old World Cup champion. Unfortunately, Shipley's Olympic redemption is likely to be on hold a good while longer, considering the recent decision by Sydney organizers to skip whitewater events at the cash-strapped 2000 Games. The fallout is more than psychological: As of this month, the U.S. Olympic Committee will end health-insurance payments and dramatically reduce cash stipends for whitewater hopefuls — just as World Cup competition kicks into high gear. "Is this a terrifying time for our sport?" asks Shipley, who alone among U.S. team members has a big-money sponsor, having signed a lucrative four-year contract with Adidas a year before Atlanta's torch was lit. "Absolutely. But in some ways it simplifies things. Now there will be no arguing over who's getting what slice of the pie."

Samad Hayati is looking through video eyes at what his six-wheeled robot sees as it picks its way through a martian landscape. "It's not red," says Hayati, who comanages the California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Rocky 7 interplanetary rover project. "But it sure is desolate." The sand is flecked with black volcanic rock and pocked with shallow craters, one of which has been stumping Rocky 7, the JPL's star robotic rover. Each time Rocky tries to bypass it, he bumps on the rim and spins around, "hovering around the crater," Hayati laments.

Thankfully, this mishap didn't actually occur on Mars. It was a dry run, held in April on the parched bed of California's Lavic Lake. But even if Rocky's problems are not yet multibillion-dollar snafus, they do vividly animate the pitfalls of trying to rehearse for an arduous remote-control search for traces of life on Mars. Indeed, thanks to the recent frenzy over the possibility of such life, the rush to the red planet is currently underway. The first rover voyage, featuring a proto-Rocky called Sojourner, is due to land on the fourth of this month. Sojourner, however, will cover less than 100 yards. Finding signs of life on Mars requires a rover capable of traversing what Carol Stoker, who conducts field tests for NASA's Ames Research Center, calls "features of interest thousands of kilometers in size." Thus the pressure is on scientists not only to develop more advanced rovers, but to ensure that they can handle all manner of "Mars analogs," or earthly approximations of the stark martian landscape. And right now, it seems they have their work cut out for them.

Of the three outfits doing the bulk of the research, only the JPL has yet to take its analog tests far afield. Such trips, Hayati says, would be "superfluous," given that Rocky 7 still can't tell if the occasional creosote bush is a rock to avoid or a clear path to cross. Carnegie Mellon University, another NASA contractor, has been more bold in its testing, taking its spiderlike Dante robots to climb where humans dare not — inside active volcanoes. But the first Dante climbed just 27 feet down Antarctica's Mount Erebus before its tether broke; Dante II made it to the bottom of Alaska's Mount Spurr, but then slipped on the way back and ultimately lost seven of its eight legs.

This put an end to walking-rover research, but wheeled models are faring better. Using a stout, Russian-built Marsokhod rover, Ames researchers have conducted successful tests across Hawaii's Kilauea caldera and the harsh Arizona desert. Ames has also used Marsokhod's underwater counterpart to refine its "telepresence" navigational systems, diving beneath the Antarctic ice sheet to prove, as researcher Chris McKay puts it, that the rover could "do science in remote locations" via satellite control. Still, Marsokhod is not without problems of its own: At 330 pounds, it may be too heavy to be affordably shuttled over an expanse of more than 34 million miles.

Nonetheless, the telepresence technology used to guide Marsokhod has given rover researchers hope. If they can somehow meld it with the maneuverability of Rocky 7, we may well see a robot cruising Scarsdale-to-Soho distances across Mars. "These are only preliminary tests," says Hayati, as Rocky 7 struggles to overcome its crater hang-up. "We've still got a few years to work the kinks out."

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