Tony Stentz’s first unmanned vehicle was a 1986 Chevy van that moved a whopping one inch per second. He and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University would sit in the back with their computers, shipping instructions to the van as it crept around a vast, obstacle-free parking lot.
Today, the essence of that same technology is operating two vehicles millions of miles away—on Mars. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been creeping around the dusty Red Planet for nearly four years now, benefiting most recently from new software Stentz derived from the original algorithms that drove the Chevy van 21 years ago. They were expected to last three months but have defied the odds and their creators by surviving excessive heat, cold, radiation and dust storms.
Stentz, a 1982 physics graduate, went to Carnegie Mellon for his Ph.D. in computer science. He threw his soul into developing unmanned, robotic vehicles, believing that someday we will drive cars that drive themselves while we sit with our newspapers, laptops and coffee. For now, he concentrates on other automated vehicles—mining machines that extract coal on their own and military robots that sneak stealthily through woods and over mountains without risking soldiers’ lives.
A couple years ago, aware of the work being done at Carnegie Mellon’s robotics institute, NASA approached Stentz and his team with a request for software to improve their communications with the rovers. Stentz adapted the robotics software to work on the rovers. After testing it on earth-bound vehicles, the researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory transmitted it to the ones on Mars last June.
The new software maps the landscape as the rover travels forward—boulder here, trench there. If it gets into a tight spot, such as a dead end, it won’t just keep turning in circles but will actually read its own map of the territory recently traversed and reverse its course out of the jam.
“We were just excited when it actually controlled the rover for the first time,” Stentz says. “It was a milestone for us.”
And a long way from that 1986 Chevy van.