Carnegie Mellon Researchers Will Send A Robot Into Chile's Atacama Desert; Robot Can Be Teleoperated By Visitors To Science Centers In The U.S.

May 28, 1997

PITTSBURGH--A team of researchers and graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute will ship an autonomous robot they've designed and built to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile next week.

There, from mid-June to the end of July, "Nomad" will make an unprecedented 125-mile trek that will test its ability to navigate, explore and do remote science as if it were on the Moon, another planet or difficult terrain on Earth.

Beginning June 18, visitors to the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, NASA's Ames Research Center near Mountainview, Calif., and a site in Chile will be able to teleoperate the robot as it travels. They will see and feel what 3Nomad2 is experiencing through a groundbreaking new telepresence interface.

Images and data from "Nomad" also will be available on the Internet in real time at two sites. The Carnegie Mellon URL is: http://www.ri.cmu.edu/atacama-trek/. The URL for NASA Ames is http://img.arc.nasa.gov/Nomad/nomad.html. A Spanish Web site can be found at http://www.entelchile.net/Nomad.

The project is funded by NASA, with special assistance on technology and visual effects from the Intelligent Mechanisms Group at the agency's Ames Research Center.

Carnegie Mellon researchers also have formed relationships with resource people and scientists at Universidad Catholica de Chile, which has inaugurated distance learning courses with Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Chile, which has a space studies center.

"Nomad" is a wheeled rover that features a unique transforming chassis that expands and contracts to improve its stability and propulsion over variable terrain. It also features four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering on specially designed, cleated aluminum wheels. Its onboard sensing, planning and navigation capabilities enable autonomous driving and safeguarded teleoperation. The robot will achieve high data rate communication over an extended range using active pointing of high-gain antennas. Nomad's on board navigation sensors and computing will allow it to reason about obstacles and navigate in reduced communication areas without operator assistance. The robot will be carrying a unique panospheric camera that allows 360-degree visualization.

Nomad also will serve as a testbed for remote geological investigation, paving the way for new exploration strategies on Earth and beyond. The robot is equipped with sensors that will help it to search for interesting rocks and meteorites, and generate geological maps using a technique called patterned navigation. The Atacama experiment should begin to answer questions about controlling robotic explorers and communicating with them over vast distances, in addition to how well they will survive lengthy expeditions and harsh conditions in space and on other planets.

Chile's Atacama Desert was chosen for this experiment because of its similarity to extraterrestrial sites robots may explore in the future. Many areas of the desert remain unexplored. The average rainfall is an inch every 100 years, so there is no vegetation. Its location within the Eastern Standard time zone facilitates communication with sites in the United States.
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Carnegie Mellon University

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