NASA Spinoff

Robots Save Soldiers’ Lives Overseas

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

NASA intends to return people to the Moon, but this time to stay. Future plans include living quarters, scientific laboratories, a permanent lunar community, and a training ground for a future mission to Mars. Ahead of these first 21st century boots on the Moon, though, the Space Agency needs to make sure a couple of things are in place, including one thing that most of us here on Earth have begun to accept as a necessary part of any human existence: the Internet.

NASA is designing a mobile communications platform so that a planned series of scouting robots can communicate with one another, astronauts on the Moon, and mission controllers on Earth. These robot scouts will initially serve as beacons to help triangulate coordinates, including potential landing sites. They will also carry simple science experiments for studying the new locale, taking dust measurements, profiles of local geochemistry, and astronomical readings.

alt

Once in place, though, NASA wants these scouts to begin acting as relay points for a wireless communications network—essentially putting the Internet on the Moon. This network, while essential for NASA’s own purposes, will also eliminate many compatibility issues for communicating with international partners who join us on the lunar surface. With each nation designing its own space hardware, universal wireless communications reduce the difficulties of connecting communications equipment.

Working toward this goal, engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center, as part of the Science Mission Directorate’s Self-Aware Surface Network project, are designing a prototype of a communications network which will enable sensor-webs, data sharing, communications, and navigation on the Moon’s surface.

As an unexpected early benefit of this NASA research, the U.S. Army received a souped-up reconnaissance tool that is now being deployed to keep soldiers safer in war zones.

Partnership

Huntsville, Alabama-based Marshall engineers provided their counterparts at the Army’s nearby Redstone Arsenal with unexpected design upgrades for one of its remotely operated reconnaissance robots. The Multi-function Agile Remote Control Robot (MARCbot) is a device that the Army has been deploying to Iraq since 2004 to help soldiers search out and identify improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It was developed for the Army by an engineering consulting firm, Exponent Inc., headquartered in Menlo Park, California, with 19 offices across the country and representing over 90 scientific and technical disciplines.

alt

NASA became involved with the project, not just because of the proximity to Redstone or because both the Space Agency and the Army are actively engaged in studying how best to integrate and coordinate humans and robots to do some of the hardest jobs in the universe. Rather, NASA saw the low-cost MARCbots being tested and bought two from its neighbor to test its mobile communications platform.