“During the next decade,” says NASA Ames roboticist Liam Pedersen, “there’s not likely to be a human presence much beyond Earth orbit.”

That comes as no shock, given NASA’s recent focus on smaller, better and cheaper space missions. But the extent to which NASA has invested in intelligent robots might surprise a public more familiar with remote-controlled robots such as Sojourner and Canadarm2.

“Transmitting detailed instructions to essentially dumb robots is grossly inefficient and expensive— especially when there’s lots to do,” says Pedersen.

Instead, NASA is looking to robots with at least the intelligence of small animals — robots that distinguish objects in their environment based on sensory input, recognize threats, know how things behave, achieve goals independently and understand their physical limitations.

Here come the droids

NASA already has a few smart robots in development, some of which will provide models for the next generation of space explorers. Among the most promising are the following:

  • Hyperion: A sun-seeking robot developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, Hyperion navigates to avoid shadows and is smart enough to know when it’s lost or in trouble
  • Extra-Vehicular Activity Robotic Assistant: With natural-language recognition of gestures, the roving ERA is helping in the development of robotic aides for planetary surfaces, deep space and Earth orbit
  • K9: Able to take measurements and decide what’s interesting, K9 is a test platform for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers and other future Mars missions
  • Personal Satellite Assistant: For astronauts on spaceships, the softball-size PSA will propel itself around providing help when needed. Looking like a small laser-firing droid from Star Wars, the PSA will be able to converse with astronauts, access information in a ship’s computer, monitor the air and provide reconnaissance in dangerous situations
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