Don't expect the next "giant leap for mankind" to be taken by a human. If NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has its way, the first long-term inhabitants of Mars will likely be a robotic work crew operating as a construction crew.
These robots are designed to coordinate such tasks as grasping, lifting, and moving heavy objects, while avoiding obstacles over unsteady terrain. Dr. Paul Schenker, supervisor of the Mechanical and Robotics Technologies Group and director of the project at JPL, likens their "multi-robot cooperation, or more specifically, multi-rover cooperation" to the same type of cooperation required by humans to carry a ladder around a house. Such communication is achieved with a "brain-sharing" software program called Control Architecture for Multi-robot Planetary Outposts (CAMPOUT).
CAMPOUT has an expandable, heterogeneous architecture that assigns specific behavioral controls to each robot. In the future, more functions and intelligence may easily be added, as well as the number of robotic platforms.
Two rovers in the robotic work crew practice grasping
and hoisting an extended payload
According to Schenker, "There are higher level behaviors that enable close
cooperation in response to constant changing events." This hierarchy of
behaviors exists only within each robot's set of controls, so that no one robot
is in control of the project. They are programmed with basic functions to
accomplish a task; but once in the field, they are truly autonomous and rely on
sensory controls to perform tasks and avoid problems.
To date, two robots have successfully located, grasped, and carried an 8-ft long container over more than 50m in an outdoor test simulating the deployment of a solar power station on Mars. Presently, Schenker describes the project as a research task, rather than a flight mission. "The intention is for cohabitation for both humans and robots." The robots would simply pave the way for the humans and construct power stations for eventual habitation on Mars, though it may be 15 to 20 years before we see a robot taking that "giant leap."
For more information on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory robotic work crew, visit http://prl.jpl.nasa.gov/projects/rwc/rwc_index.html.