NASA’s Perseverance rover has been trundling across the surface of Mars since arriving on the planet in spectacular fashion in February last year.
The six-wheeled, SUV-sized vehicle is currently on its way to the Jezero River Delta as it continues its search for evidence of ancient microbial life on the red planet.
In a new video, Tyler Del Sesto, a rover driver and strategic route planner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains how Perseverance is using its self-driving smarts to move safely across the Martian surface.
With a top speed of 0.1 mph, Perseverance is moving at about the same pace as a tortoise (a slow one, at that!), covering around 300 yards a day.
When NASA’s rover is making its way across long distances between locations of interest, as it is doing now, the team at JPL need only plot a few points for its basic route, leaving the rest to the rover’s “AutoNav” autonomous navigation system.
“The rover’s self-driving ability is very similar to self-driving cars on Earth, but there are different challenges,” Del Sesto says. So whereas autonomous cars on Earth use a suite of sensors and cameras to look out for other vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians, Perseverance is using similar technology to steer clear of rocks, sand, craters, and cliffs in order to stay safe.
The rover drivers at JPL are able to access 3D maps — built from images snapped by Perseverance’s left and right cameras — to see how well the rover is performing during its drives on the faraway planet. One big advantage over earlier NASA rovers such as Curiosity is that Perseverance is able to process and analyze captured images while driving, enabling it to complete trips more quickly than its predecessor, which needs to stop, take images, and then process them before choosing a safe route. NASA calls Perseverance’s system a “thinking-while-driving capability.”
For more complicated routes or driving maneuvers, the rover team at JPL will don 3D glasses and examine the nearby terrain more closely as the rover advances.
“Perseverance’s self-driving ability is very important to this mission,” Del Sesto says. “It allows us to get to the Jezero Rover Delta as fast as possible and that gives the science team as much time there to study the rocks and collect samples for future return to Earth.”
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