SOMETHING is moving. Two robots sitting motionless in the dust have spotted it. One, a six-wheeled rover, radios the other perched high on a rocky slope. Should they take a photo and beam it back to mission control? Time is short, they have a list of other tasks to complete, and the juice in their batteries is running low. The robots have seconds to decide. What should they do?
Today, mission control is a mere 10 metres away, in a garage here at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Engineers can step in at any time. But if the experiment succeeds and the robots spot the disturbance and decide to beam the pictures back to base, they will have moved one step closer to fulfilling NASA's vision of a future in which teams of smart space probes scour distant worlds, seeking out water or signs of life with little or no help from human controllers.
The 20 minute lag time for transmissions to Mars combined with the limited bandwidth available for sending pictures and other sensor data make greater autonomous capability highly desirable. Greater autonomy requires better image processing algorithms. For example a rover needs the ability to recognize obstacles and cruise around them.
Money spent on developing robotic technologies will do more to enable space exploration than far larger sums spent on rockets capable of launching humans into space. Plus, the development of robotic technology for this purpose could produce some technological spin-offs for automating work down here on Earth. In my view we should put more effort into robotic exploration while we wait for nanotubes that will enable the creation of a "space beanstalk" approach to getting into space. The costs are too high for launching all the equipment and supplies needed to support human life on a trip to Mars or for a colony on the moon.