In a recent NASA press release, officials state that the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has acquired new capabilities that allow it to "make its own choices about whether to make additional observations of rocks that it spots on arrival at a new location."
What technology, you may ask, could have provided for such developments? Has prolonged exposure to the red sands of Mars caused the humble little droid to evolve, or is something else at play?
Indeed, it appears that new software was uploaded remotely over the winter, which enables new capabilities for the Red Rover, by "taking advantage of the twin Mars rovers' unanticipated longevity for real Martian test drives of advances made in robotic autonomy for future missions."
Guy Webster, with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, has more:
Now, Opportunity's computer can examine images that the rover takes with its wide-angle navigation camera after a drive, and recognize rocks that meet specified criteria, such as rounded shape or light color. It can then center its narrower-angle panoramic camera on the chosen target and take multiple images through color filters.
"It's a way to get some bonus science," said Tara Estlin of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. She is a rover driver, a senior member of JPL's Artificial Intelligence Group and leader of development for this new software system.
Thus, the NASA team in charge of the Rover Opportunity have managed to get a little more than they bargained out of this mission. Indeed, advances in modern science are constantly presenting us with a variety of different ways to get the best bang for our buck, and robotics are no exception to such profound science. Recently at my blog, The Gralien Report I provided a bit of commentary on CIA drone programs, as well as new military technology that seeks to make robots that will capitalize on the adaptations of insects and other members of the animal kingdom to benefit special operations and risk injury in field operations.
We may not be there just yet, but at the rate that technology is growing, we might finally be very close to finding those droids we were looking for...