A revised version of the AutoNav (autonomous navigation with hazard avoidance) software running onboard each Mars Exploration Rover (MER) affords better obstacle avoidance than does the previous version. Both versions include GESTALT (Grid-based Estimation of Surface Traversability Applied to Local Terrain), a navigation program that generates local-terrain models from stereoscopic image pairs captured by onboard rover cameras; uses this information to evaluate candidate arcs that extend across the terrain from the current rover location; ranks the arcs with respect to hazard avoidance, minimization of steering time, and the direction towards the goal; and combines the rankings in a weighted vote to select an arc, along which the rover is then driven.

GESTALT works well in navigating around small isolated obstacles, but tends to fail when the goal is on the other side of a large obstacle or multiple closely spaced small obstacles. When that occurs, the goal seeking votes and hazard avoidance votes conflict severely. The hazard avoidance votes will not allow the rover to drive through the unsafe area, and the waypoint votes will not allow enough deviation from the straight-line path for the rover to get around the hazard. The rover becomes stuck and is unable to reach the goal.

The revised version of AutoNav utilizes a global path-planning program, Field D*, to evaluate the cost of traveling from the end of each GESTALT arc to the goal. In the voting process, Field D* arc votes supplant GESTALT goalseeking arc votes. Hazard avoidance, steering bias, and Field D* votes are merged and the rover is driven a preset distance along the arc with the highest vote. Then new images are acquired and the process as described is repeated until the goal is reached. This new technology allows the rovers to autonomously navigate around much more complex obstacle arrangements than was previously possible. In addition, this improved autonomy enables longer traverses per Sol (a day on Mars), and can make planning drives easier for operators on Earth.

The Field D* algorithm was developed and configured for MER by Anthony Stentz and David Ferguson of Carnegie Mellon University and integrated into MER flight software by Joseph Carsten and Arturo Rankin of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The software used in this innovation is available for commercial licensing. Please contact Karina Edmonds of the California Institute of Technology at (626) 395-2322. Refer to NPO-44504.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2007 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from the archives here.