CMU Hands Curiosity Rover Its Autonomy
Back in July, Curiosity, NASA’s Mars rover, began a 5.3 mile journey to Mount Sharp, a 3.4 mile-high mountain in the Gale Crater. However, in late October, the rover completed a two-day drive all on its own thanks to Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute and their autonomous navigation software.
For NASA, acquiring the navigation software means that the rover can cover more ground at a faster pace. Not only that, but it allows Curiosity to safely maneuver across terrain not previously evaluated by human rover drivers.
“Autonomous navigation already has made it possible for the rover to extend its range each day, continuing to operate beyond the area we have been able to evaluate in advance,” said Mark Maimone, a rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “But what really matters is how far we can drive between planning cycles. Autonomous drives over multiple days will allow Curiosity to keep moving, even on weekends and holidays when staff members aren’t available.”
Tony Stentz, Director of CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center, and Dave Ferguson, a former student of Stentz’s, created a program called Field D, which is what the autonomous navigation software is based on. Field D builds a map of the terrain that a robot comes across, which in turn helps it to figure out the path forward. In addition, it allows provides the robot with a memory of the path so that it can retrace its steps if the need arises.
The Field D program began in the early 1990s and was implemented into many autonomous vehicles at Carnegie Mellon. The software was eventually added to a few rovers as well including the Mars Exploration rovers in 2006 and Opportunity in 2007.
“We’re pleased to know that Field D has become part of NASA's flight software and is helping Curiosity achieve its scientific goals,” said Stentz.
During the first day of the autonomous drive, Curiosity followed a 180-foot route that was predetermined by rover drivers at JPL. The autonomous software then led Curiosity another 125 feet, after it had evaluated the best course to the destination.
On the second day, Curiosity again evaluated the terrain to make sure it was safe for travels and then covered 105 feet.
“Now that the science team has decided to hightail it to Mount Sharp, we have to look for ways to cover more distance,” said Maimone. “So Curiosity is now making greater use of autonomous navigation. Curiosity has already added nearly 500 meters to her odometer using autonomous navigation.”