NASA Turns to Open Source Middleware for Human-to-Robot Communications

Data management is inherently tricky, but when it involves robots in space—communicating via a low-bandwidth intermittent link—it's trickier. NASA is leveraging Data Distribution Service for Real-Time Systems to help it solve that problem as part of its Human Exploration Telerobotics project.

Wed, July 31, 2013

CIO — Data doesn't always have to be big data to have a huge effect on the way we live. Whether it's big data or small data, data management is increasingly a thorny issue.

For NASA, data management is at the heart of a key challenge: improving human-to-robot communication to make space exploration easier and safer.

"When you look at the way NASA and other agencies around the world have done work and exploration in space, often it's been divided between pure human exploration on the one side and on the other side is purely robotic exploration," says Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

"We're interested in the middle ground of having humans and robots working together," Fong says. "How can you combine humans with robots?"


For the past three years, Fong and his team have been pursuing that question with the Human Exploration Telerobotics (HET) project. They want to pave the way for robots that can perform many of the routine, in-flight maintenance tasks that are time-consuming, highly repetitive and often dangerous for astronauts to perform manually.

The team is also investigating ways to improve the ability of astronauts to remotely control robots on a planetary surface. By doing so, the HET project aims to improve and hasten human space exploration missions to new destinations.

Two of the robots the project is working with—Robonaut 2 and SPHERES (short for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites)—are aboard the International Space Station and controlled by operators on the ground.

Two others—the K10 planetary rover and ATHLETE (All-Terrain, Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer robot)—operate at NASA field centers, controlled by astronauts on the International Space Station.

Android and Linux in the Final Frontier

The HET robots make extensive use of open source software and platforms. For instance, Android and Linux are used for most of their computing. The SPHERES robots, free-flying mobile sensor platforms about the size of a volleyball, use an Android "Nexus S" smartphone for data processing (it was the first commercial smartphone certified by NASA to fly on the space shuttle and cleared for use on the International Space Station).

Collecting data is the easy part. Aggregating and transmitting it are trickier. In space exploration, robots have to work remotely in extreme conditions, operated over highly constrained communication networks. After all, to work, data must move bidirectionally across a link that is fundamentally intermittent.

As a result, although some telerobots are now in use on Earth, they aren't well-suited for space operations. New, advanced designs and control modes are necessary. Despite variations in purpose, technology and design, all the HET robots must be equipped for both high-speed (local) and low-bandwidth, delayed (satellite) communications.

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