For NASA scientists simulating an expedition to another planet, Utah's Southeast Desert might as well be the Moon.
NASA's 'Mobile Agents Project' is using the desert's lunarlike landscape to search for ways of improving human-robot interactions. The agency's plans to return to the moon and venture to Mars will require extensive human-robotic cooperation.
"One of our biggest problems is to break out of preconceived notions rooted in science fiction or existing robotic technology," says Bill Clancey, principal investigator of the project. Scientists will examine landscape, distance, work coordination, and other factors for ways of refining technology. This requires integrating crew, robots, software, and remote operations and science teams to simulate planetary surface exploration.
A 20-person team is now using prototype tools, including a wireless computer network, at the Mars Society's Desert Research Station. Scientists and engineers from NASA's Ames and Johnson (Houston) Space Centers are taking part in the test.