The big Consumer Electronics Show is going on this week in Las Vegas and one of the many cool technologies on display are self-driving cars. A number of different companies have been developing autonomous vehicles for a while now. But while these vehicles are still in the development stage here on Earth, up on Mars unmanned vehicles have been cruising around for years.
Of course, the Curiosity rover (as well as the still-functioning Opportunity rover) aren’t truly autonomous, meaning they don't decide where to go on their own. They’re really driven by a team engineers on the ground at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). They also do a lot more than just drive around the surface of Mars; they also conduct all sorts of scientific experiments and analysis. In order to tell the rovers where to go and what to do each day, the team of rover drivers use sophisticated ground-based software.
I’ve written previously about the software onboard the Mars Curiosity rover and I recently had the opportunity to interview Brian Cooper, the rover’s lead driver and lead developer of the ground-based control software, about the code that makes Curiosity go. Cooper has been involved in developing the code used to drive all of the rovers that have operated on Mars to date, from the Pathfinder Rover Sojourner, to Spirit and Opportunity (the Mars Exploration Rovers) to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), better known as Curiosity. In addition to developing the control software, Cooper has also driven all four.