Re: NYT NEWS - Helper space robot/Netiquette 80

Doug Jones (
Wed, 29 Sep 1999 09:28:52 -0700

Larry Klaes wrote:

> > 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

Et cetera ad nauseum... if something is worth passing on to the mailing list, isn't it worth a few minutes of the poster's time to clean up the formatting? Larry, it appears that the formatting was hosed when you received it from Jay Respler. Why couldn't you fix it up yourself? Ironic that this post showed up in my queue right after "Netiquette 80"...

Here's the post with formatting improved:

(BTW, the news release strikes me as typically shameless NASA self-promotion. This could have been contracted out to any number of engineering firms- or even to a sharp R/C modeling club.)

Date: Wed, 29 Sep 1999 00:00:18 -0400
From: JAY RESPLER < Organization: SkyViews Astronomy & Space information Web Site X-Mailer: Mozilla 4.04 [en] (Win95; I)
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 By WARREN LEARY

WASHINGTON -- 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 palmtop computers could use radio signals to exchange information on a wireless network without interfering with other electronic systems aboard the spacecraft.

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, relaying 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 astronaut-researchers.

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 conjunction with robot sentries that are being considered for work outside the space station. On Dec. 3, 1997, the shuttle Columbia demonstrated a free-flying, remote-controlled robot camera called Aercam Sprint, developed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Astronauts guided the beachball-size 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."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

Jay Respler
   Satellite Tracker * Early Typewriter Collector
 Freehold, New Jersey

Doug Jones, Rocket Plumber
Xcor Aerospace (We'll have a website up Real Soon Now)