JPL: students get FIDO's leash

From: Brian D Williams (
Date: Wed May 17 2000 - 07:49:13 MDT


Contact: Mary Hardin, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Kathleen Burton, NASA's Ames Research Center, 650/604-1731



     Several groups of high school students will take the controls
of NASA's prototype Mars rover, the Field Integrated Design and
Operations (FIDO) rover, this week as part of ongoing field tests
designed to simulate robotic driving conditions on the red planet.

     "This year, we are focusing the rover tests on controlling
FIDO as if it were on Mars," said Dr. Eric Baumgartner, systems
engineer for FIDO rover development at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The science and engineering teams
are sequestered in the mission control room at JPL's Planetary
Robotics Laboratory while the rover is in a geologically
interesting site in an extremely remote portion of central
Nevada. The teams will only see the site through the eyes of the

     As part of the formal engineering tests, two days have been
set aside for student participation. The student groups are
located at their schools around the country in Ithaca, N.Y.;
Birmingham, Ala.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Flagstaff, Ariz. In
addition, a group of students from Copenhagen, Denmark will be in
the JPL mission control room for their portion of the test drive.

     The students will use the same tools as the engineers and will
view rover telemetry and develop their own command sequences for
communicating with the rover. Each student group is responsible for
creating and executing a part of the sequence that controls the
rover's return to the vicinity of a simulated lander.

     "The students have a real role helping us complete a very
complicated rover field test. We are providing an exciting venue
for motivated high school students to apply verbal, written,
mathematical, and computer skills to solve real problems involving
simulated surface operations," said Dr. Raymond Arvidson, a
geologist from Washington University, St. Louis, and mission
director for the field tests.

     FIDO is about the size of a St. Bernard. It weighs about 70
kilograms (150 pounds) and is approximately 85 centimeters (about
33 inches) wide, 105 centimeters (41 inches) long, and 55
centimeters (22 inches) high. The rover moves at an average speed
of about 200 meters an hour (about one-tenth of a mile per hour)
over smooth terrain, using its onboard stereo vision systems to
detect and avoid obstacles "on-the-fly." During these tests, FIDO
is powered both by solar panels that cover the top of the rover
and by replaceable, rechargeable batteries. FIDO is about twice the
size of Mars Pathfinder's Sojourner rover and is more capable of
performing its job without frequent human help.
     The FIDO science and engineering teams are exploring the
remote field site through the eyes of the rover by collecting
black-and-white and color panoramic images, near-infrared spectra,
and close-up measurements at the site in an attempt to characterize
the area's geology and geologic history.

     During a portion of the field test, FIDO is being joined by
K9, a rover under development at NASA's Ames Research Center,
Moffett Field, Calif. During the joint field operation, K9 will
act as a "scout" by moving ahead of FIDO in search of rocks that
are the best candidates for core sampling. K9 is controlled from
JPL using Ames' "Virtual Dashboard," a graphical user interface
that lets the rover operator send commands to K9, which executes
them using onboard executive software.

     The planning of K9's command sequences is supported by a suite
of software tools called Viz, developed at Ames by the Autonomy and
Robotics Area. Viz uses images from stereo cameras onboard K9 to
create a realistic 3D model of the surrounding environment. During
the trial, this model will be displayed as a virtual reality
environment that allows the scientists and rover operators to
travel around the area, measuring distances and object sizes, in
order to recommend the best sampling sites and traverse routes.
     "This field trial is a 'proof of concept' of a successful
multi-rover experiment," said Dr. Nicola Muscettola, Autonomy and
Robotics Area Lead at Ames. Like FIDO, K9 is controlled from JPL's
mission control center.

     The FIDO rover is a testbed for future missions, including the
proposed Mars Mobile Lander that is currently under study for a
possible launch in 2003.

     "FIDO's development began in 1998 as a way to integrate and
test new robotic technologies for future Mars rover missions," says
Dr. Paul Schenker, who leads the FIDO project at JPL. "A major
strength of this work has been its rapid prototyping,
science-driven style. We've developed a systems-oriented approach
with the ability to quickly bring diverse robotics technologies,
advanced science instrument designs, and a close knit science and
engineering operations team together in realistic field tests. FIDO
has become a terrific design tool for advancing NASA's capabilities
and reducing risk for future Mars missions."

     Pictures of FIDO in the field can be retrieved at:

     JPL manages the FIDO mission for NASA's Office of Space
Science, Washington, D.C. JPL is a division of the California
Institute of Technology.
5/16/2000 MAH
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