Curiosity, Drones and AUVSI

If you have been overwhelmed by the Olympics then you might have missed the spectacular landing of the robot Curiosity on Mars. It coincides with the start of the AUVSI show in Las Vegas where I will be filming a plethora of video interviews for Engineering TV.

NASA's Curiosity can be classified as an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV). They can be fully autonomous, partially autonomous or teleoperated. UGVs are used for a host of applications such as reconnaissance and explosive ordinance device (EOD) removal. They can also be ring bearers in a wedding (see Dragon Runner Shows Up At Wedding As Ring Bearer).

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are the flying alternatives. They will be out in force at the AUVSI show along with their land and seaborne counterparts. Our videos and some of my future blogs will address the show but I wanted to talk a bit about a related subject that will also be a topic of discussion at the show. This is the future appearance of UAVs in the skies in your backyard.

To start, I actually want to talk a little bit about Curiosity. It is big weighing in at 1980 pounds here on Earth. Mars gravity is lower than Earth's. The rover is actually nuclear powered so it does not depend upon solar panels. It does not have a nuclear reactor like a sub but uses the same kind of nuclear "batteries" found on many satellites.

The package that delivered Curiosity to Mars included two unmanned robotic rocket vehicles including the main rocket and a smaller "sky crane" that lowered Curiosity to the ground by an umbilical cable (Fig. 1). The latter released Curiosity when it touched the ground, flew to one side and crashed, on purpose. By the way, NASA chose Wind River's VxWorks for the rover (see Wind River and NASA JPL: Overcoming Seven Minutes of Terror. Again).


Figure 1. Curiosity was actually lowered onto Mars by its matching UAV via a cable that was then severed.

Curiosity (Fig. 2) is more like an SUV with dimensions of 2.9 m by 2.7 m by 2.2 m. That is more than twice the size of Opportunity and Spirit, the solar powered robots that were dropped via an air bag ball (see Engineering Expertise Triumphs In Mars Rovers). The two smaller robots were supposed to run about six months but Opportunity is still going after six years. Curiosity brings a whole new set of sensors and more computing power on-board for an impressive autonomous robot.


Figure 2. Curiosity has a host of cameras, robotic arms and sensors to provide a long term research robot on Mars.

UAVs are already filling the skies in the battlefield and smaller ones are flying locally. Aircraft like the Predator drone have been armed with missiles with lethal consequences. So far deadly robots have all been teleoperated so there is a human in the loop but as the Curiosity episode has shown, UAVs do crash. Sometimes that is intended. Usually it is not.

Even on the ground, UGVs are often teleoperated at this point. It is mostly research vehicles that are fully autonomous. UAVs are often run in autonomous mode but they usually assume the sky is clear because they lack the sensors and smarts to handle exceptions. Unfortunately things can get in the way and airborne collisions usually result in falling junk.

There is actually a good bit of discussion and technology at AUVSI that addresses this area and UAVs are getting smarter. The FAA is actually going to allow selective UAVs to fly in restricted areas now (see
FAA Makes Progress with UAS Integration) but eventually UAVs are likely to be as common or more common than manned aircraft. Part of this is because of cost but flexibility is an overriding factor. Even tiny UAVs like Draganfly Innovations Draganflyer (Fig. 3) can fly a digital camera hundreds of feet in the air (see Electric engines power small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). These can record video or images. They can also be equipped with radio transmitters to send the multimedia content to the operator.


Figure 3. The Draganflyer is all electric and can carry payloads such as small digital cameras.

Even small UAVs can be a hazard. Sparkfun no longer allows helicopters in their autonomous robot race competition (see Soldering And Beer—What A Mix!) because of the danger. Image what a one ton UAV would do if its not doing what it is supposed to or goes flying where it is not wanted.

On the other hand, there are many applications other than the usual surveillence and mapping jobs that UAVs are already used in that are beneficial and more economical. For example, eletric power line inspection could be done using flying robots. The same is true for inspecting large bridges, buildings or other areas where it is difficult to get a person into place.

Much of what the AUVSI show is about are the kinds of technology that can be employed to make robots safer. Even now, most assembly line robots are behind plexiglass barriers or within well marked areas where people do not enter while the robot is running. That, as well as the use of UAVs, is going to change so we will hopefully coexist with our robots in a safe environment.

By the way. I am getting better at typing with my thumbs on my Nexus 7 tablet. The Bluetooth keyboard is faster and more accurate but not as convenient. The landscape keyboard is not bad when there is a flat surface but the keys are a bit too close for my fingers to touch type quickly although the accuracy is somewhat better. Autocompletion is your friend, sometimes. Posting online is still done using my laptop though.

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