Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Mars rover tested this week in Nevada desert
Posted: May 17, 2000

The Field Integrated Design and Operations (FIDO) rover is being used in ongoing NASA field tests to simulate driving conditions on Mars. FIDO is at a geologically interesting site in central Nevada while it is controlled from the mission control room at JPL's Planetary Robotics Laboratory in Pasadena. Photo: NASA/JPL
Several groups of high school students will take the controls of NASA's prototype Mars rover, the Field Integrated Design and Operations (FIDO) rover, this week as part of ongoing field tests designed to simulate robotic driving conditions on the red planet.

"This year, we are focusing the rover tests on controlling FIDO as if it were on Mars," said Dr. Eric Baumgartner, systems engineer for FIDO rover development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The science and engineering teams are sequestered in the mission control room at JPL's Planetary Robotics Laboratory while the rover is in a geologically interesting site in an extremely remote portion of central Nevada. The teams will only see the site through the eyes of the rover."

As part of the formal engineering tests, two days have been set aside for student participation. The student groups are located at their schools around the country in Ithaca, N.Y.; Birmingham, Ala.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Flagstaff, Ariz. In addition, a group of students from Copenhagen, Denmark will be in the JPL mission control room for their portion of the test drive.

The students will use the same tools as the engineers and will view rover telemetry and develop their own command sequences for communicating with the rover. Each student group is responsible for creating and executing a part of the sequence that controls the rover's return to the vicinity of a simulated lander.

"The students have a real role helping us complete a very complicated rover field test. We are providing an exciting venue for motivated high school students to apply verbal, written, mathematical, and computer skills to solve real problems involving simulated surface operations," said Dr. Raymond Arvidson, a geologist from Washington University, St. Louis, and mission director for the field tests.

FIDO is about the size of a St. Bernard. It weighs about 70 kilograms (150 pounds) and is approximately 85 centimeters (about 33 inches) wide, 105 centimeters (41 inches) long, and 55 centimeters (22 inches) high. The rover moves at an average speed of about 200 meters an hour (about one-tenth of a mile per hour) over smooth terrain, using its onboard stereo vision systems to detect and avoid obstacles "on-the-fly."

During these tests, FIDO is powered both by solar panels that cover the top of the rover and by replaceable, rechargeable batteries. FIDO is about twice the size of Mars Pathfinder's Sojourner rover and is more capable of performing its job without frequent human help.

The Field Integrated Design and Operations (FIDO) rover extends the large mast that carries its panoramic camera. The FIDO is being used in ongoing NASA field tests to simulate driving conditions on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL
The FIDO science and engineering teams are exploring the remote field site through the eyes of the rover by collecting black-and-white and color panoramic images, near-infrared spectra, and close-up measurements at the site in an attempt to characterize the area's geology and geologic history.

During a portion of the field test, FIDO is being joined by K9, a rover under development at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. During the joint field operation, K9 will act as a "scout" by moving ahead of FIDO in search of rocks that are the best candidates for core sampling. K9 is controlled from JPL using Ames' "Virtual Dashboard," a graphical user interface that lets the rover operator send commands to K9, which executes them using onboard executive software.

The planning of K9's command sequences is supported by a suite of software tools called Viz, developed at Ames by the Autonomy and Robotics Area. Viz uses images from stereo cameras onboard K9 to create a realistic 3D model of the surrounding environment. During the trial, this model will be displayed as a virtual reality environment that allows the scientists and rover operators to travel around the area, measuring distances and object sizes, in order to recommend the best sampling sites and traverse routes.

"This field trial is a 'proof of concept' of a successful multi-rover experiment," said Dr. Nicola Muscettola, Autonomy and Robotics Area Lead at Ames. Like FIDO, K9 is controlled from JPL's mission control center.

The FIDO rover is a testbed for future missions, including the proposed Mars Mobile Lander that is currently under study for a possible launch in 2003.

"FIDO's development began in 1998 as a way to integrate and test new robotic technologies for future Mars rover missions," says Dr. Paul Schenker, who leads the FIDO project at JPL. "A major strength of this work has been its rapid prototyping, science-driven style. We've developed a systems-oriented approach with the ability to quickly bring diverse robotics technologies, advanced science instrument designs, and a close knit science and engineering operations team together in realistic field tests. FIDO has become a terrific design tool for advancing NASA's capabilities and reducing risk for future Mars missions."