NYT NEWS - Helper space robot

Larry Klaes (lklaes@bbn.com)
Wed, 29 Sep 1999 09:43:38 -0400

>Date: Wed, 29 Sep 1999 00:00:18 -0400
>From: JAY RESPLER <jrespler@superlink.net>
>Organization: SkyViews Astronomy & Space information Web Site
>X-Mailer: Mozilla 4.04 [en] (Win95; I)
>To: jrespler@superlink.net
>Subject: NEWS robot
>Tom Trower/NASA-Ames
> The personal satellite
assistant, being developed
> at NASA's Ames Research
Center, and Yuri O.
> Gawdiak, the project's
principal engineer. The
> robots could serve as extra
sets of eyes, ears and
> noses.
> September 28, 1999
> Building Robot Aides to Follow Astronauts
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> ASHINGTON -- Astronauts on the International Space
Station may get
> tiny robot helpers to assist them in daily chores and
to buzz around their
> orbiting outpost, monitoring its condition.
> Taking a page from science fiction,
> engineers at the National Aeronautics and
> Space Administration's Ames Research
> Center at Moffett Field, Calif., are
> developing small robot buddies that could
> tag along with astronauts and act as
> personal assistants.
> Developers envision little round robots
> about the size of softballs that are
> propelled by tiny fans through the
> weightlessness of a space station or
> shuttle. Hovering over the astronauts'
> shoulders and responding to voice
> commands, the devices, equipped with
> cameras, speakers, microphones and a
> variety of sensors, could serve as
> additional sets of eyes, ears and noses for
> the crew in space and the support staff on
> the ground, engineers say.
> The jobs imagined for these robot aides
> range from the essential to the mundane.
> As an astronaut works on an experiment
> with both hands in a glove box, for
> instance, the mechanical assistant could
> serve as a communications link with an
> Earth-bound researcher watching from
> afar. The devices could also patrol the
> corridors of the space station, checking
> for gas leaks, smoke and unusual bacterial
> growth, or remind astronauts about the
> next tasks on their daily to-do lists or of
> the need to send a birthday message to a
> loved one at home.
> Yuri O. Gawdiak, the principal engineer on
> the project, said the idea of the personal
> satellite assistant, or P.S.A., came to him
> after an experiment between the American
> space shuttle Atlantis and the Russian
> Mir space station in 1996. That mission showed that laptop and
> computers could use radio signals to exchange information on a
wireless network
> without interfering with other electronic systems aboard the
> Afterward, astronauts told engineers that they wanted wireless
palmtops, or even
> smaller portable data assistants, that could record and
monitor data like the
> fictional tricorder devices popularized by the television
series "Star Trek," Gawdiak
> said. "I took it a step further when I noticed that crews on
missions left equipment
> to float around when they got busy," he said. "I thought they
would like a device
> that would always face them when floating, perhaps something
stabilized by
> gyroscopes."
> Gawdiak said the idea evolved further when he saw astronauts
on a shuttle
> mission demonstrate toys in weightlessness during an
educational program. Small
> wind-up toys hopped and flew around the cabin with startling
speed and ease, he
> said, spurring ideas of practical mobile devices.
> "Then I saw 'Star Wars' and there was a scene in the movie
when the characters
> used a remote robot object -- a fast-moving ball -- to
practice with their light
> sabers," he said. "And that gave me more ideas."
> The device, as now envisioned, is a ball about 5 inches in
diameter that is studded
> with sensors for rangefinders, motion detectors and position
trackers to keep it
> from running into things or getting lost. The battery-powered
P.S.A. could move in
> any direction using six enclosed propeller fans and have a
flat-screen video panel
> on one side to display data.
> "This is small enough to be unobtrusive," Gawdiak said, and
big enough to hold
> the technology that will be available in the next couple of
years to do the job.
> It would be impossible for each P.S.A. to carry the computing
power and
> instruments for all the things people suggest these helpers
could do, which is
> where the wireless data network comes into play. The robots
would operate from a
> base station that would contain powerful computers for
analyzing sensor data,
> running speech-recognition and voice-synthesizer software,
> communications and tracking the devices. The station would
also contain docking
> ports for recharging the P.S.A.'s batteries, and sensors that
could be snapped onto
> the robots, depending on tasks assigned to them.
> Earlier this month, engineers at Ames completed a crucial test
of the robots'
> components by mounting them on a hoverplate and guiding them
around a test
> table on a cushion of air. And the team has received financing
to develop a
> prototype.
> "We hope to launch a personal satellite assistant in about two
years aboard a
> space shuttle and in about three years aboard the
International Space Station,"
> Gawdiak said. The space station, a $60 billion project
involving the United States
> and 16 other nations, is to house up to seven
> Developers would like to use at least three P.S.A.'s on the
station to demonstrate
> the technology. That would allow the devices to work in
formation to zero in on
> environmental problems, such as a temperature spike or a leak.
> The devices might also be used in
> with robot sentries that are being
considered for
> work outside the space station. On
Dec. 3, 1997,
> the shuttle Columbia demonstrated a
> remote-controlled robot camera called
> Sprint, developed at the Johnson
Space Center in
> Houston. Astronauts guided the
> device, powered by gas jets, outside
the shuttle
> for more than an hour to show that it
could be
> used, instead of a human space-walker, to inspect the exterior
of a spacecraft.
> William L. (Red) Whittaker of the Robotics Institute at
Carnegie Mellon University
> said free-flyer robots such as P.S.A.'s have great potential
for performing many
> tasks in space. The next step, he said, would be to put
manipulators on them so
> they could push buttons or pick up things. "But to be
successful, these robots will
> have to prove that they work and make it on their own merits,"
he said, "It isn't
> enough that a technology just be impressive."
> Gawdiak said that, ideally, he would like each crew member on
the space station to
> have a P.S.A. pal customized for his or her work schedule. The
device could do
> everything from waking the crew member each day to checking
ahead to see that
> equipment is in place for the human's next assigned task.
> But, Gawdiak said: "The crew does not want a 'Big Brother' up
there that will
> intrude and get in the way.
> If they don't want it around sometimes, they have to be able
to tell it to go away."
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> Ames Research Center.
> Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
>Jay Respler
> JRespler@superlink.net
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