Field testing new technologies

NASA has been conducting field tests of vehicles and the next generation EVA suits that will be employed when astronauts first return to the Moon. The Science, Crew, Operations and Utility Testbed (SCOUT) was developed by Johnson Space Center to explore advanced technologies that would be employed by future lunar and Martian vehicles in support of missions. This program began as a fuel cell development program, an alternative to using relatively conventional batteries on a robotic rover testbed, but it soon became an effort to develop a fully-fledged rover testbed as a mobile platform. Frank Delgado is the project lead for SCOUT.

"What we're doing is developing new technologies and operations concepts that will be directly applicable to future lunar or other planetary rover development efforts,'' Delgado said. "SCOUT is a lab on wheels that can be driven from onboard, by operators at teleoperation stations, or by the onboard autonomous system. The onboard driving mode is very similar to the one used on the original Apollo Lunar Rover. The teleoperation mode uses teleoperation stations with advanced visualization capabilities that greatly enhance the teleoperators' situation awareness. We routinely teleoperate SCOUT from our base camp located within a couple of miles of the vehicle, but during one of our Arizona tests, we successfully teleoperated SCOUT

Johnson Space Center's Advanced EVA Technology Development Lab is evaluating, as one concept, solar-powered crew support vehicles such as this tractor, which would assist in removing lunar rocks. NASA's Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team conducting the evaluations is led by scientists from JSC and Glenn Research Center. (NASA/JSC/GRC)

Johnson Space Center's Advanced EVA Technology Development Lab is evaluating, as one concept, solar-powered crew support vehicles such as this tractor, which would assist in removing lunar rocks. NASA's Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team conducting the evaluations is led by scientists from JSC and Glenn Research Center. (NASA/JSC/GRC)

from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, which was over 1,000 miles away. It can also be driven in autonomous mode with the use of the onboard software.

"SCOUT's path planner, obstacle avoidance system, and point-to-point navigation system provide it with the ability to go from point A to point B autonomously while avoiding obstacles that are larger than twelve inches tall and following a path that avoids hazards and keep-out zones. Along with these three driving modes, the vehicle has advanced technologies that will enhance its operational effectiveness. An example is the onboard vehicle power health management system. This will collect information related to the power usage and determine how much further the vehicle will be able to drive before running out of power. If power conservation is required to return back to base camp, the power health management system will be able to automatically turn off individual devices not deemed critical during the return trip. Another useful capability being developed is human following. Human following is performed with a stereo vision system that can recognize what a human looks like. When it finds a human, it will begin to visually track them. The tracking information is tied to the drive system and as the person walks, the vehicle will follow behind them at a safe distance, eight to ten meters.

"In addition to over a dozen advanced technologies that the core SCOUT team is developing,'' Delgado added, "the SCOUT project is working closely with other projects to develop advanced technologies that will prove useful in future lunar exploration endeavors. These include the Advanced Cockpit Evaluation System (ACES), the Planetary Exploration Geophone System (PEGS), the Ultrawide Band System (UWB), the Planetary Drill Project, and the Experiment and Planning Operations Center (ExPOC). The ACES project has developed a generic cockpit that is being used to teleoperate SCOUT with pinpoint accuracy. The UWB project has developed technology that can provide a vehicle's position without the use of GPS. The planetary drill project is developing a system that can take core samples from locations several hundred feet below the surface, and the PEGS project is developing a system that can map the subsurface. The SCOUT project is also working with various organizations from industry, education institutions, and other NASA centers that are also developing technologies that will prove important during future lunar and planetary rover development efforts.''

Working closely with this development program is NASA's Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS). Under the direction of Joe Kosmo at the Johnson Space Center, the Desert RATS have been conducting tests and evaluations of next generation EVA suits, surface equipment and other vehicles. This team includes engineers and scientists from several of NASA's field centers, including JSC, Glenn Research Center and Ames Research Center. Desert RATS include experts from universities such as Carnegie Institute and Virginia Commonwealth University and aerospace industry businesses such as ILC/Dover (manufacturers of NASA's EVA suits) and Hamilton Sundstrand. The majority of the Desert RATS' field testing takes place at various sites outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. Long distance coordination and support is supplied by NASA's Mission Operations Exploration Planning and Operations Center (ExPOC) in Houston, Texas.

"NASA's future involves returning humans to the Moon and to Mars. Field work will be the basic method of operation on these planetary surfaces,'' Kosmo said. "Field testing prepares and provides a high-fidelity hands-on experience base for engineers and scientists to better design and operate the emerging technologies for planetary surface systems.''

One of the cutting edge technologies being developed by Ames Research Center is mobile agent software, also known as personal agent software. This software has been written and is being developed to aid astronauts with robotic vehicles and data collection, first on the Moon and eventually on Mars.

"As you look at NASA's exploration vision to return to the Moon and go on to Mars, human-robotic cooperation will be vital to achieve that vision,'' according to Eugene Tu, who is deputy director for the Exploration Technology Directorate at Ames Research Center. "In order for human beings to work effectively in extreme environments, such as the Moon and Mars for long durations, astronauts will require the assistance of robotic systems for such tasks as making science discoveries, constructing human habitats, maintaining habitat environments and performing other scientific studies.''

The product of NASA's Software, Intelligent Systems and Modeling Program within the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, mobile agent software is a continually-evolving technology. For lunar exploration and examination of the regolith, for example, the astronaut would talk to the computer mobile agent software about samples he has discovered. Three key elements of the information the astronaut will convey are the name of the location, which sample bag the astronaut is using to collect the sample, and a description of the sample collected. At the same time, the astronaut will have real-time TV imaging of his collection activity which would both be recorded on the Moon and transmitted back to Earth. Digital still images will also be collected simultaneously, taken by a digital camera mounted on the EVA suit or helmet that may be voice-activated so that the astronaut would not have to use his hands to take the images.

Tests of this software and the Extra-Vehicular Activity Robotic Assistants (ERA) are conducted near Hanksville, Utah, a rugged and arid desert environment perfect for such tests. The capabilities of the ERA are evolving on a year-by-year basis, and will eventually result in the needed performance parameters for first use on the Moon. Those parameters will be used by the NASA center responsible for building the ERA, or they will go into the Request for Proposals issued to outside contractors who will build them for NASA.

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