May 05, 2010, 11:55 AM — Imagine a team of robots -- some rolling on wheels, some walking on two legs -- working alongside astronauts on the surface of Mars, scouting previously unseen locations, measuring the parameters of a new base or constructing a building.
Now picture astronauts driving across the Martian surface in a vehicle. When the astronauts get out and begin their work, they can flip a switch to turn the vehicle into an autonomous robot that goes off to undertake projects on the planet.
Whatever work the next generation of NASA-developed space robots does, it will be done in conjunction with their human counterparts.
That's the image that a lot of the U.S. space agency's engineers have in mind as they work on the new robotic rovers , said Terry Fong, director of NASA's intelligent robotics group . In comparison, the Mars rovers on the Red Planet have been working alone for years.
"We're working on a new use of these robots -- robots to support human exploration," Fong told Computerworld this week. "NASA is now thinking, 'How do you go about sending humans to the moon or Mars or elsewhere? How can you use the combination of humans and robots to do exploration better?' I think it's a really, really fundamentally different approach."
Fong said he's hopeful that the the next-generation robotic rovers will arrive on the moon or on an asteroid within five to 10 years.
Robotics technology has long played a role in NASA's space exploration efforts.
For example, two robotic rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- have been slowly trekking across the surface of Mars, sending images and data back to NASA scientists on Earth. Bruce Banerdt, a project scientist for the Mars Exploration Rovers, has said the rovers are among the most advanced technology ever built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
NASA is also working on another robotic rover, dubbed Curiosity , that is slated to be sent to Mars in 2011. Curiosity is an SUV-size super rover that will carry cameras, chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors to investigate the Martian surface.
Much like Spirit and Opportunity, the Curiosity super rover is designed to work alone on Mars.