Imagine a team of robots -- some rolling on wheels, some walking on two legs -- working alongside astronauts on the surface of Mars, scouting previously unseen locations, measuring the parameters of a new base or constructing a building.
Now picture astronauts driving across the Martian surface in a vehicle. When the astronauts get out and begin their work, they can flip a switch to turn the vehicle into an autonomous robot that goes off to undertake projects on the planet.
Whatever work the next generation of NASA-developed space robots does, it will be done in conjunction with their human counterparts.
That's the image that a lot of the U.S. space agency's engineers have in mind as they work on the new robotic rovers, said Terry Fong, director of NASA's intelligent robotics group. In comparison, the Mars rovers on the Red Planet have been working alone for years.
"We're working on a new use of these robots -- robots to support human exploration," Fong told Computerworld this week. "NASA is now thinking, 'How do you go about sending humans to the moon or Mars or elsewhere? How can you use the combination of humans and robots to do exploration better?' I think it's a really, really fundamentally different approach."
Fong said he's hopeful that the the next-generation robotic rovers will arrive on the moon or on an asteroid within five to 10 years.
Robotics technology has long played a role in NASA's space exploration efforts.
For example, two robotic rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- have been slowly trekking across the surface of Mars, sending images and data back to NASA scientists on Earth. Bruce Banerdt, a project scientist for the Mars Exploration Rovers, has said the rovers are among the most advanced technology ever built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
NASA is also working on another robotic rover, dubbed Curiosity, that is slated to be sent to Mars in 2011. Curiosity is an SUV-size super rover that will carry cameras, chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors to investigate the Martian surface.
Much like Spirit and Opportunity, the Curiosity super rover is designed to work alone on Mars.
"The experience that NASA has had over the years has been focused on using robots to do the best science," said Fong. "That's really different from using robots to help humans do the best science they can. We're trying to understand, if we're sending humans to the moon or someplace else in the solar system, what's needed to build those robots."
"Robots are going to be absolutely essential" to future space exploration, Fong said, adding that wheeled and two-legged robots could work together and perhaps communicate with each other as well as with humans.
And NASA developers could create multiuse robots. "We are currently planning to send vehicles and other pieces of equipment to be used by humans wherever they go. A lot of the things we're sending to be used by humans could be a robot if you just flip a switch. After a few missions, you could have quite a large number of robots on site," Fong added.
He noted that software development is a key part of the robot development effort. The rovers would have less work to do all on their own, but they will need software to help them take a frequently changing set of directions from both Mission Control on Earth and from astronauts working alongside them. "What software is needed onboard, and what software is needed on Earth? And how do you coordinate between robots and humans?" Fong asked.
"What you need then is a different sort of [robotic] intelligence," he noted. "It needs to be able to do scouting and survey work. The intelligence is all about how do you make the robot sufficiently independent."
Another engineering challenge is fitting more computer processing power onboard the rovers. (An iPhone probably has more power than the current Mars rovers). Other challenges include identifying a sufficient power source and developing powerful 3-D sensors so the rovers can survey and understand the world around them.
Focusing on this next generation of robotic rovers fits in with the plans proposed in President Barack Obama's budget plan.
The Obama administration's 2011 federal budget proposal calls, in part, for the space agency to spend more time and money developing robots that can aid in manned and unmanned space missions. Fong said he's waiting to see how the new budget and mission will affect his work, but he's confident that NASA will maintain its focus on creating robots that can work hand in hand with astronauts.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.