31 August 2013

Curiosity turns on self-driving software, can now navigate Mars on its own

Roughly 200 million miles away on the surface of the Red Planet, NASA’s Curiosity just one-upped Google: It autonomously drove across the surface of Mars without human supervision. This is the first time that Curiosity has turned on its self-driving “autonav” software, and initial reports suggest that Curiosity navigated the treacherous surface of Mars flawlessly. The autonav software will help Curiosity reach its destination, Mount Sharp, much more quickly because the rover won’t have to wait for driving instructions from NASA — it can just plug away at the remaining kilometers autonomously.

Up until yesterday, every movement made by Curiosity has been painstakingly keyed in by NASA, usually after performing simulations here on Earth using Curiosity’s stunt double (the Vehicle System Test Bed). These movements are planned by NASA engineers, who pore through photos of the terrain captured by Curiosity to seek out potential obstacles, such as big rocks or sand traps (Mars rover Opportunity famously stumbled into a sand dune in 2005, and took 40 days to extricate itself). The problem is, the cameras on board Curiosity can only see so far ahead; if there’s a dip in the ground, or the rover is going up hill, NASA can only plan a very short drive until it gets updated imagery of the rover’s surroundings.
The view from Curiosity’s front-left hazcam, with Mount Sharp in the distance
This is where the autonomous navigation software, or autonav for short, kicks in. Basically, Curiosity is equipped with two stereo pairs of hazard avoidance cameras (hazcams) which create a 3D map of the rover’s surroundings. This is similar to the EyeSight system implemented by the Subaru Forester, but a lot simpler than the LIDAR system employed by Google’s self-driving cars (Mars doesn’t have any fast-moving obstacles, making autonomous driving a lot easier.) Using this 3D map, the rover can plot an alternate course around any obstacles that aren’t safe to drive over. Yesterday, August 27, Curiosity’s 376th Martian day, the rover autonomously drove itself through a 10-meter depression which NASA could not confirm ahead of time to be safe.

A poster illustrating Opportunity’s autonav software, which is very similar to Curiosity (click to zoom in)

A map of Curiosity’s progress from landing, to Glenelg, to its eventual target: Mount Sharp

Since leaving Glenelg, where Curiosity confirmed that conditions on Mars could’ve once supported life, the rover has driven a grand total of 0.86 miles (1.39 km) towards its primary science target, Mount Sharp. It has around 4.46 miles (7.18 km) left to go, and will stop at a number of scientifically interesting waypoints identified by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. It will take months to reach Mount Sharp, but we should have a lot of pretty photos and interesting science to share during that period.

Now read: NASA working on faster-than-light space travel, says warp drives are ‘plausible’


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