Curiosity Mars rover gets smart with AI update

Curiosity Mars rover gets smart with AI update

Technology News |
By Rich Pell

The software, called AEGIS – for “Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science” – was sent to the rover as a software update in late 2015, and has been in routine use since May 2016. It is being used to help the rover select targets for its ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera complex) remote geochemical spectrometer instrument, which provides both elemental compositions of rock and soil using laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, and high-resolution images of the targeted sampling areas.

Such AI-based solutions are seen as a way to help address the limitations imposed by interplanetary delays and interruptions in communication between NASA and the rover, which slow the progress of operations. Rather than having to await instructions from scientists back on Earth, the rover can look for targets on its own, based on already “knowing” the characteristics of the kinds of samples that mission scientists are interested in.

The AEGIS software operates in two modes: autonomous target selection and autonomous pointing refinement. In autonomous target selection mode, it identifies and chooses geological targets, and then measures them with ChemCam, without Earth in the loop. In autonomous pointing refinement mode, it automatically corrects small pointing errors, allowing very small features to be observed reliably on the first attempt.

According to the Science Robotics study, the system “has substantially reduced lost time on the mission and markedly increased the pace of data collection with ChemCam.” Based on its autonomously selecting the most desired target material over the last 2.5 kilometers of driving into unexplored terrain, the system’s performance the study says has exceeded 93% compared to about 24% expected without intelligent targeting, with all observations resulting in a successful geochemical observation.

As a result, the system has been “rapidly adopted” as an exploration tool by mission scientists, and is now typically being used whenever available power resources for it permits. The software has proven useful enough that, according to the study, it is scheduled for NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission.

For more, see “AEGIS autonomous targeting for ChemCam on Mars Science Laboratory: Deployment and results of initial science team use.”

Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover

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