Robotics and biotic surveys = "ROBIOTICS"

James H. Beach jbeach at NSF.GOV
Wed Jul 2 11:01:57 CDT 1997

Subject: Nomad robot explorations - note web sites

See FLASH Updates notes at the bottom!


The Nomad robot has begun its 200km traverse of the Atacama desert of
Chile.  During the 45-day experiment, running June 15-July 31, the Carnegie
Mellon University and Ames Research Center technology team, and the Ames
science team will be using the rover to validate a number of robotic
technologies for remote driving and exploration and investigating the
abilities and limits associated with remote robotic exploration of
planetary surfaces (simulated via desert analog for this experiment).

During different phases of this test, control of the robot will be
configured simulate wide-area exploration of the Moon, the search for signs
of past life on Mars and the gathering of meteorite samples in the
Antarctic, all of which makes for a really unique and challenging
experiment.  Built by researchers at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute,
Nomad also contains onboard navigation sensors and computers to enable it
to avoid obstacles without relying on a human operator.

Nomad's unique onboard panospheric camera provides live 360-degree,
video-based still images of the robot's surroundings.  In addition to the
existing public observing sties at Ames and in Pittsburgh, within the next
week we will have a remote control station configured here at NASA HQ/Code
S to allow us to observe the rover operations live, and display the images
from the Atacama as they are transmitted by the rover.

Information about the desert trek and live images and data from Nomad is
available on the Internet at URL:


Carnegie Mellon also will maintain a website at URL:


===== FLASH UPDATE!!  Nomad makes a discovery!! =====

Summarized notes from the Nomad team: We have had some great results in the
science ops so far.  Today (Wednesday, June 25) we discovered a fossil (not
planted but rather indigenous to an outcrop)!  It is believed that this is
the first time a robot has ever been successfully used to make such a
discovery.  The combination of the panospheric (giving overall perspective
and "where we are in the geological context") and the human fovial
resolution science camera seems to have broken the way thru the barrier of
doing good science with remote cameras.  Can we get by with less? - TBD.
The fossil is a few centimeters large and is believed to be fossilized

During today's operations, Nomad was being controlled from Ames Research
Center for both technical and science ops, while the field party in Chile
collected "ground truth" data.  During the traverse of Site 4, the science
team identified an in situ fossil in a block detached from an outcrop. The
fossil appeared as a dark and strangely shaped feature on the rock no more
than 3 cm large. Its color and shape caught our attention. At this point,
we concluded that there was a strong suspicion for a fossil in this rock.
During the debriefing, the Chilean field geologists confirmed our finding
as being a "silicified algae fossil", part of the algae being already
replaced by silica.  This fossil was not planted, and the science team was
given no information that there may be fossils in the area (they were
actually investigating volcanics).  This finding has profound implications
for planetary exploration, the main one being that we have shown our
ability to identify degraded fossils from current tested imagery (note that
these fossils are visible to the naked eye, and are not on the microscopic
scale of the ALH-84001 evidence).  This is a significant step forward in
our understanding of the technologies required for this type of exploration
- in previous experiments science teams have not been able to get
sufficient information from the remote science system to make accurate
analyses of the environment, and have missed major fossilized features even
when the rover was looking right at them.

This finding did not come alone. At the amazement of the Chilean geologist,
the fossil was found in an unit never observed and referenced before in
this region. This is of extreme importance for the Chilean geologists that
are going to study it.

Finally, we ended our day's operation with a total traverse of 1311 meters
and 10 sites explored.  To put these results into perspective, only 25% of
the day's operations were devoted to science, and the rest for traverse. We
are preparing a written science report about this operation including the
findings and the advantages and disadvantages of this mode.

The images used during the discovery can be found on the web at:

The fossilized (silicate) algae is the brownish material on the smaller
rock to the lower left of the block that is casting a shadow.  Nathalie
Cabrol and Guillermo Chong are writing up a complete description including
the science team's interpretation and the ground truth.


Dave Lavery
Telerobotics Program Manager
Mars Program Executive
NASA Headquarters, Code SM
e-mail: dave.lavery at

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