Near the picnic tables in the courtyard of the Goddard Space Flight Center's Building 23 is a 30-foot by 40-foot area that only can be described as otherworldly. With its variegated, crater-pocked terrain, this small spot looks a lot like the photos taken of Earth's third closest neighbor Mars.
Testbed for Advanced Concepts
That's precisely what the developers of the Multipurpose Exoterrain for Robotic Studies (MERS) were trying to accomplish when they created the facility using Director's Discretionary fund money last year. The semi-realistic environment was conceived as a test-bed for demonstrating advanced software control concepts for robotic missions, including optimal path planning and autonomous fleet management, among other things. Along with the terrain, researchers are allowed to use the facility's three Personal Exploration Rovers (PERS) built by Carnegie Mellon University and a robot locator system for up to 10 robots.
We built MERS so that we would have a local facility to validate Goddard-unique scientific and engineering concepts. We also want to encourage local researchers from industry and academia to use our facility, and partner with us in meeting NASA's exploration challenges.”
The purpose of the Building 23 courtyard facility is to provide an environment for Goddard researchers and partners to perform testing relative to surface exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond,” said Julie Loftis, assistant chief for technology for Goddard's Information Systems Division (ISD), which developed the testbed.
We built MERS so that we would have a local facility to validate Goddard-unique scientific and engineering concepts,” Loftis said. –We also want to encourage local researchers from industry and academia to use our facility, and partner with us in meeting NASA's exploration challenges.”
This summer, researchers will use the facility to test two different technologies.
Technologists Study Fleet Management System
One is Goddard's Adaptive Sensor Fleet (ASF) technology, which ISD technologists originally developed for oceangoing research platforms (see Goddard Tech Trends, Winter 2005). Technologists have modified the technology for use with the rovers.
With this computer software system, scientists can identify their scientific targets and the system's –fleet manager” divides the work and directs each rover or ocean platform to the target depending its location, obstacles, and the location of other rovers. ASF then displays on a computer screen the progress of each rover or platform as well as the cumulative scientific data. The idea behind ASF is to improve the in-situ data-collection process.
REAL Project to Test Planetary-Exploration Technologies
The other prototype subsystems to be tested include vision-navigation guidance and control technology, a boundary-tracking sensor, and a robotic arm. These technologies are being developed for the Robotic Explorer for Antarctic and Lunar Applications (REAL) project, directed by Mike Comberiate of the Flight Programs and Projects Directorate.
REAL is testing new technologies that could be used for planetary surface exploration. The aim is to develop semi-autonomous robotic mechanisms that would allow scientists to do research in hostile and remote environments unattended, yet monitored and controlled by way of Internet-like communications.
MERS Available to All Researchers
The MERS facility is available to NASA, university, and industry researchers. For more information about using the facility, click here. (http://aaa.gsfc.nasa.gov/mers)
By Lori Keesey
For the Goddard Space Flight Center
The Office of the Chief Technologist is involved in a variety of projects, missions, and technologies.