Remote Wheeling in Chile

PITTSBURGH--A four-wheel-drive robot named Nomad, one of a new generation of robots designed to explore the moon and Mars, embarked today on a 200-kilometer test drive through a barren desert in the high Andes of Chile. Cheered on by spectators here at the Carnegie Science Center who watched Nomad deploy via satellite link, the trek is to test the robot's ability to explore a harsh environment while being commanded in real time by humans 8000 kilometers away.

Nomad, with dune buggy wheels and keen peripheral vision, is the latest in a series of robots built by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University. Its predecessors include Dante II, which explored a volcano in Alaska 2 years ago. As the robot rolled out onto the dusty, boulder-strewn floor of the Atacama Desert, a crowd of scientists and reporters helped command its movements at the Carnegie Center. "You've just witnessed the robot's first baby steps," said William `Red' Whittaker, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon. "Nomad will wander the desert for 40 days, if not quite 40 nights."

Nomad, which hopes to log 5 kilometers a day while under remote control, already is relaying home 360-degree images of the dusty desert. It's equipped with sensors and metal detectors that will help it search for rocks and meteorites, as well as two stereovision cameras that will send high-resolution color photos to geologists. At various points during the test, "we will configure the robot to simulate wide-area exploration of the moon, the search for signs of past life on Mars, and the gathering of meteorite samples in the Antarctic," said Dave Lavery, NASA's telerobotics program manager. Nomad's successor is scheduled to explore the Antarctic, but so far has not been selected for a mission to the moon or another planet.

Nomad is designed to surpass NASA's four-wheeled Sojourner robot, which is due to land on Mars on 4 July. Sojourner is only expected to move a few meters per day and to send back one black-and-white photo a day.