20 SERVO 10.2013
DRONE-ING ON AGAIN
Recently, Northrop Grumman's X-47B unmanned
combat air thingy (vehicle or system — take your pick)
did a mostly excellent job at autonomously taking off
from — and more importantly landing on — an aircraft
carrier. Once everything was shown to work, the US
Navy was like, "Awesome job, dudes. Now, never fly
those things again," and the two X-47Bs were slated for
permanent museum display. Fortunately, the Navy has
just changed its mind.
The Navy is now planning to deploy the drones to
aircraft carriers three more times over the next two
years. The first deployment should happen by the end of this year, followed by a second deployment about a
year from now, and a final one sometime between late 2014 until early 2015.
From the sound of things, that last deployment is going to be the most exciting one. The X-47B will "fully
integrate with a 70-plane carrier air wing for several weeks," to (hopefully) show that robots can seamlessly
work with manned aircraft in carrier operations. We'll also get to see the first aerial refueling operation.
In addition to testing out the robotic aircraft more thoroughly, these deployments will also serve to
prepare the aircraft carriers themselves for routine drone operations. In many ways, that's the biggest hurdle
that the X-47B has to fly over: Getting humans comfortable with having sophisticated and potentially armed
robots flying around on their own.
DRIVING MS. CURIOSITY — NOT!
JPL has decided to let Curiosity think for herself, now letting the rover
decide where to drive.
By "decide," JPL can now tell Curiosity,"we want you to go over that way
and end up at a specific place, but you can figure out for yourself how to get
there." To do this, the rover analyzes images from its cameras as its driving to
determine which potential routes are safe and which aren't.
"Curiosity takes several sets of stereo pairs of images, and the rover's
computer processes that information to map any geometric hazard or rough
terrain," said Mark Maimone, rover mobility engineer and rover driver at
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA."The rover considers all the
paths it could take to get to the designated endpoint for the drive and chooses
the best one."
A recent drive on the mission's 376th Martian day — or "sol" — took
Curiosity across a depression where ground surface details had not been visible
from the location where the previous drive ended. The drive included about 33 feet
( 10 meters) of autonomous navigation across hidden ground as part of a day's total drive
of about 141 feet ( 43 meters).
"We could see the area before the dip, and we told the rover where to drive on that part.
We could see the ground on the other side, where we designated a point for the rover to end
the drive, but Curiosity figured out for herself how to drive the uncharted part in between,"
said JPL's John Wright, another rover driver.
For the future of robotic exploration of our solar system and beyond, autonomy is going
to play a bigger and bigger role, if for no other reason than the time it takes for instructions to
get to the robots.