Charles D. Edwards, Jr: Autonomous Vehicles

Presented at SPIE Optics + Photonics 2017.

24 August 2017

In this Hot Topics session, Charles Edwards, Jr. of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (USA) gives an illustrated account of the independent-minded Curiosity lander, now celebrating five years of driving safely in the rough terrain of Mars. Edwards notes that the autonomy of the rover has been essential to its success.

Curiosity continues to solve its own navigation problems, with mission scientists hopeful for another five years of useful activity.

The robot, driving through unpredictable environments of bedrock outcrops, where clear skies can suddenly become blinding dust storms and where clouds can hide the power-giving sun, runs itself as a stand-in for the humans who sent it, and has proven to be very good at its job.

"It's taking care of itself," says Edwards in an illustrated account of the independent-minded lander's adventures on the rough terrain of Mars. "It's been very productive."

Edwards shows Curiosity exploring the Gale Crater, formed 3 or 4 billion years ago. Over time, it has eroded, leaving sedimentary deposits. "Thus we are walking through time as we climb through the layers," he says.

He also shows a rover "selfie" - in all, 50 images stitched together - showing the dangerous geological formations in its path, with tire tracks tracing the decisions made by the robot to navigate between hazards.

The next-generation vehicle, the Mars 2020 Rover, will use new instruments to pick out the most interesting rock targets for potential return to Earth, and will push even further the autonomous capabilities of the vehicles.

Charles Edwards, Jr. is Manager of the Mars Relay Network Office and Chief Technologist for the Mars Exploration Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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