by Jeff and Jenn Eckert
Autonomous Cargo Spacecraft Launched
With the final Space Shuttle mission looming, its likely
replacement — the Spacex Dragon — lifted off from Cape Canaveral on
December 8th atop a Falcon 9 launch vehicle. This was the first of at
least 12 planned missions related to resupplying the International
Space Station, although the December outing was just a short test
flight aimed at demonstrating the system's ability to launch, orbit,
communicate and maneuver, and return safely. An actual cargo
mission isn't scheduled to happen until the third flight, later this year.
Perhaps most notable is that Dragon can operate without human
intervention, being capable of fully autonomous rendezvous and
docking. However, it can be reconfigured to support up to seven
passengers in the crew configuration, with members taking over
control from the flight computer if desired. Also worth mentioning is
that its $1.6 billion budget covers a minimum of 12 flights, whereas a
single Shuttle launch runs about $450 million. In case your local TV station didn't provide details, we can reveal that the
vehicle can deliver payloads of up to 6,000 kg ( 13,228 lb) and bring back half that amount. In terms of volume, you can
stash up to 10 cubic meters (245 cubic feet) in pressurized mode, and 14 cubic meters (490 cubic feet) unpressurized,
inside. Lest you think this isn't a true commercial enterprise, note that non-ISS flights are available under the name
DragonLab, so if you want to hire the platform for technology demonstrations, instrument tests, or whatever, all you need is
a fat wallet. For details, visit www.spacex.com.
Dragon spacecraft with solar panels deployed.
Flying Bot Dodges Obstacles
Another flying robotic
platform — but much closer to
home — is the Pelican,
developed at the University of
( www.upenn.edu) and
demonstrated at the 27th
annual Army Science
Conference in Orlando, FL.
Pelican was created as part of
the Army's Micro Autonomous
Alliance in an effort to create
vehicles that can "think" their
way through complex
environments. It reportedly
wowed the attendees by
perfectly navigating through an obstacle course, going over,
under, and around obstacles in its way.
Equipped with various sensors, a laser camera, and a
low power computer to interpret what it "sees" and "feels,"
it can operate both indoors and out. In spite of its
operational complexity, the
bot weighs less than three
lb. According to Penn's Dr.
Nathan Michael, the
computer constantly asks
such questions as "Where
is my location? How do I
plan in that map? How
much wind can I control?"
and then determines its
own route by taking into
account the environment,
what it needs to do to
keep flying, and even its
The Pelican flying robot navigates over, under, and through
obstacles. Photo by Sarah Maxwell, Army Research Lab.
8 SERVO 02.2011