Debate fueling human-robot research at Ames

February 28, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
During hearings in Washington this week, Democrats and Republicans alike challenged the Obama Administration's decision not to return humans to the surface of the moon.

This current debate could benefit a new kind of human-robot hybrid exploration being developed at NASA's Ames Research Center in the drive to discover a way for robots and humans to get along.

At NASA's Ames Research Center, Terry Fong continues to develop his team of interplanetary robots while anxiously following the news from Washington. The recent White House decision to postpone human exploration is based on a report by the Augustine Commission, which suggests a new kind of exploration, already under development by Fong's group.

"People often ask me which are better. Humans? Or robotic exploration? And the answer is, actually both," says Fong, the Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames.

In fact, the commission does propose to send humans not to the surface, but instead, to orbits around Mars and the moon where humans could coordinate with or control robots on the Martian surface, taking advantage of the relatively short communication times. We would learn how to work with robotic probes on the planetary surface.

"Be that the moon, Mars, an asteroid, you can send humans and robots at different times. Robots can work before, during or after human missions," said Fong.

It's not robots versus humans according to one member of the panel that grilled NASA, Congressman John Garamendi from the East Bay. In an interview over Skype, Garamendia said, "For observing the Earth as well as the rest of the universe, we need to have human space flight part of the American system, too. We can't lose those. Both are critically important for our nation's security, as well as for everything from your GPS system to, well, what we're doing right now, Skype."

"If we're not going to the moon," Fong points out, "that means we're going to some other destination. It might be an asteroid. It might be to other places in the Solar System and for that, I think there's a good place for robots. It's a good place for humans. And, it's really a great place for humans and robots together."