Michael Jordan? Mohammed Ali? Joe Montana? Sit down. The world's most amazing athlete works for NASA. Meet the gigantic, six-legged, tool-wielding robot that can hop around an asteroid. Tiger Woods ain't got nothin'.
The robot you see in the video is a half-scale model of a vehicle that NASA wants to send on a human mission to the moon. Half. This thing is thirteen feet tall. It's naked in the video, but when it eventually launches it'll have a payload on its back. It'll probably house a tonne of tools and gear, and even temporary space for a crew of one or two. It's the lunar rover's mutant, roboinsectoid big brother, and it's incredible.
Athlete's wheels are designed for benign terrain, which means normal, solid, not-too-rocky moon dirt. Ordinarily, a vehicle this size and weight (it weighs more 5,000 pounds and can carry a payload of over 32,000 pounds... well, earth-pounds) would need big fat wheels to prevent it from sinking in soft sand. Ditto for driving over larger obstacles. But larger wheels need larger motors, which require more weight, more power, and other headaches. The engineers who designed Athlete sidestepped this problem. Literally. By having the wheels on articulated limbs, it can just step over large rocks, or push itself out of soft sand. This means it can have smaller wheels and motors, which makes it far more dextrous. The limbs that drive the robot are the limbs that do detailed work, like drilling and taking samples. The motors that turn the wheels are the motors that actuate the tools. Genius. Or, perhaps more to the point: rocket science.
The tools (all of which hang off the sides of the vehicle and are swappable) attach to the arms with a standard half-inch square-drive, just like you'd find in a nice, burly ratchet set. The tool you see in the video is a counter-rotating auger-anchor. Because the augers are rotating in opposing directions, it effectively cancels out any torque on the arm—and more importantly, on the vehicle. When gravity is scarce, the force of a drill on Athlete's arm could fling its body around like a ragdoll. On an asteroid, for instance, where there is almost no gravity, the Athlete could use two of these auger sets, embedding them then removing them in sequence, to essentially "walk" across the surface. Other tools currently include drill bits, grippers, and scooping devices.
It's incredible to see. Then they fire up the Low-Gravity Test Bed, the monster soars over your head, and you lose the ability to form sentences.
The moon's gravitational pull is far weaker than Earth's—and almost non-existant on an asteroid. In order to test how Athlete will perform in realistic situations, NASA built a series of computer-controlled winches that can effectively simulate micro-gravity. When the test bed is engaged, you can see how the rover can jump up and land. You can see how it would be able to maneuver off the ground, using small blasts from tiny rockets.
Oh, and it does all of this in 3D. ATHLETE is a super-spider (with six legs, I know. Maybe it was in a fight?). Not only does it have tonnes of eyes, but the eyes all come in pairs, enabling perhaps the only useful implementation of 3D ever. The drive cameras, hazard avoidance cameras (haz-cams), and tool cams are all stereoscopic. When you're navigating a foreign world, two dimensions aren't going to cut it. You need depth-perception. You need to see the world as if you were standing there.
You would think that something as sophisticated as this would be impossible to control unless you went to MIT. You'd be wrong. Meet the Conductor Project. These are the people who are working on intuitive, natural interfaces for complex robotic systems. Their job: to take something extremely technical and put it into the language of humans. Remember those incredible Mars Exploration sites we unveiled last week that made you feel like you were on the surface of the red planet? Yeah, that was them.
In the video you see an Xbox Kinect controlling Athlete in simulation. Obviously, Athlete cannot move as fast as it does in the simulation. So what's the point? It allows NASA engineers and scientists a broader picture and it's extremely useful in mission-planning and target selection. A scientist who has had zero training can step into an immersive 270-degree wrap around screen (or just use the TV you see in the video) and control the Athlete. Want to go forward? Walk in place. Want to turn left or right? Shift your shoulders. Switch into manipulation mode? Just raise your hands. I got to try it, and I was up and running in mere second, though it did not appreciate my popping and locking (no, you can't see video of that atrocity).
Xbox isn't the only one getting NASA love. Every year NASA takes some of its projects to the deserts of Arizona for an outing called Desert Rats, so engineers can test their systems in adverse conditions. At Desert Rats 2010, Athlete traveled 60 kilometers controlled almost entirely by a Nintendo Wii.
Conductor is also working on ways to control NASA's Robonaut (currently on the International Space Station). The idea is that the more intuitive the controls, the more astronauts can focus on the tasks they are trying to accomplish, rather than fussing with their tools. As these systems become more adept, we will be able to accomplish more with less risk, less time, and less cost. According to Victor Luo, the Technical Lead for the Conductor Project, it takes an astronaut about four-hours to prepare for a spacewalk, or EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity). Robonaut won't have to worry about breathing, freezing, or radiation exposure, so if it can become as dextrous as an astronaut, NASA can save a lot of time and worry.
As Athlete touched down again, it was hard for us to wrap our heads around what we'd just seen. Are these the pickup trucks of the future? When our grandkids are all living on moon colonies, will Toyota be making things that look like this? If so, I hereby volunteer myself as test-driver #1.
Huge thanks to everyone at Athlete and Conductor for their time.
Space Camp is all about the under-explored side of NASA. From robotics to medicine to deep-space telescopes to art. For these couple of weeks we'll be coming at you direct from NASA JPL and NASA Ames, shedding a light on this amazing world. You can follow the whole series here.
Video shot by Judd Frazier, edited by Woody Jang.
Special thanks to Mark Rober, Jessica Culler, Dan Goods, Val Bunnell, and everybody at NASA JPL and NASA Ames for making this happen. The list of thank yous would take up pages, but for giving us access, and for being so generous with their time, we are extremely grateful to everyone there.