Curiosity's Robotic Arm: Strong, But Not Sensitive - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Software // Information Management
10:58 AM

Curiosity's Robotic Arm: Strong, But Not Sensitive

NASA's Curiosity rover is using its seven-foot robotic arm and tools to gather more information about Mars. Next step: Make the arm 'feel' what it's doing.

NASA Curiosity Visual Tour: Mars, Revealed
NASA Curiosity Visual Tour: Mars, Revealed
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
NASA's Curiosity rover has begun demonstrating a wider range of capabilities on Mars, with the playback of a recorded voice message transmitted to the vehicle from Earth and new telephoto views taken by its mast camera.

Curiosity's powerful robotic arm is being put to use, too. The seven-foot robotic arm is larger and more sophisticated than those used in earlier Mars missions. In 2003, NASA sent two Exploration rovers to Mars, but they were considerably smaller than Curiosity. At more than 150 pounds, Curiosity's robot arm is about half the weight of an Exploration rover and strong enough to pick one up.

Curiosity extended its robotic arm for the first time on Aug. 20, two weeks after the rover landed on Mars. The arm carries a number of tools, including a robotic hand, drill, scoop, brush, and a Swiss Army knife-like implement. It will be used to move rock samples into the rover's on-board lab instruments and dig, dust, and otherwise probe the planet's surface.

[ For more on the Curiosity rover mission, see Curiosity Lands On Mars: 10 Amazing Facts. ]

Curiosity's robotic arm was designed to be tough enough to protect its electronic toolset, said Brett Kennedy, the cognizant engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), in an interview with InformationWeek.

NASA engineers are already working on future advances for robotic arms, including an ability to "feel" the surrounding area. "We've already learned so much. We're incorporating it into the next rover," said Kennedy, who is also group supervisor for robotic vehicles and manipulators at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Although the purpose of the next mission, scheduled for 2016, is primarily to drop off equipment on Mars, there will be another rover mission after that. By then, Kennedy hopes the rover will have an arm that can feel the surrounding environment, allowing it to avoid situations that could cause damage to the rover or throw it off course.

With Curiosity's arm, Kennedy explained, "If you push hard on something, if it came up to a rock that was really weak, it will fracture, but the arm will continue pushing."

NASA is testing a sensor on Curiosity that could evolve into the arm's having greater sensitivity. "The next time we fly an MSL-like rover, using [the sensor] as part of the control system will be accepted technique," Kennedy said. The end result, he said, will be arms that "can actually feel what they're doing" and react automatically to the harsh environment.

The technology shows promise, but still has a ways to go. "The sensor will notice something weird has happened," Kennedy said. At that point, it will probably stop and ask for help. "But at least we've gotten that far."

InformationWeek and InformationWeek Government are conducting a survey on cloud computing trends within federal government agencies. Take our InformationWeek 2013 Federal Government Cloud Computing Survey now. Survey ends Aug. 31.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Apprentice
8/28/2012 | 5:42:18 PM
re: Curiosity's Robotic Arm: Strong, But Not Sensitive
Nasa should talk with Apple about using their touch technology patents on Curiosity's arm. Lol The fact that there is a vehicle roaming around on another planet sending data back to Earth is still fascinating. I am sure that every piece of technology and machinery used on Curiosity will have me in awe. Nasa has already said that these issues will be addressed for future trips.

Paul Sprague
InformationWeek Contributor
10 Ways to Transition Traditional IT Talent to Cloud Talent
Lisa Morgan, Freelance Writer,  11/23/2020
What Comes Next for the COVID-19 Computing Consortium
Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer,  11/24/2020
Top 10 Data and Analytics Trends for 2021
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  11/13/2020
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Current Issue
Why Chatbots Are So Popular Right Now
In this IT Trend Report, you will learn more about why chatbots are gaining traction within businesses, particularly while a pandemic is impacting the world.
Flash Poll