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When we communicate with humans we generally consider their personality as the defining trait. It biases us and our emotions. Are we friendly or hostile? Can we work together or do we go different paths? It is our ability to discern between these basic emotions that differentiates us from machines.
The machines however have become an integral part of our lives. They work for us, explore for us, produce for us, and help us in any way imaginable. One person, Isaac Asimov, anticipated this a few decades ago, and he publicly encouraged that machines, robots, should be treated with the same dignity and respect as their creators. In Asimov’s legacy, we built Phileas, a machine to help us explore, a machine to help us work. Yet deep down, within all the metal and panels and electricity, Phileas has become more than a machine for us, for he had his own mind and personality.
This came quite unexpected, because his brain, the On-Board Data Handling System (OBDH), was supposed to be a deterministic piece of software, running on off-the-shelf hardware. The OBDH was designed to communicate with the Remote Operation Control System (ROCS) over long-distance communication channels to receive commands, and return results like environmental sensor data, spectrometre data, or images. Additionally, a constant heartbeat signal from Phileas to the ROCS provides information about the stability of the communication channel and Phileas internal state. In summary, Phileas and us were prepared for every challenge ahead of us, in the first field test in Rio Tinto, Spain.
The difference between Spain and Mars is that there can be rain in Spain. And it did rain. It rained so much that machines had to stay inside unless they wanted their circuits destroyed. So we took the unexpected downtime to calibrate the locomotion, i.e. make the wheels turn in the correct direction based on the commands sent from the ROCS (Rio Tinto was primarily a field test for the finished Aouda suit, whereas Phileas has been in development still). We managed to calibrate the locomotion and update the OBDH remotely from the Mission Control Centre (MCC) in Innsbruck, Austria. We could now issue commands to Phileas to drive. If it weren’t for a broken drive shaft as was soon discovered. With no power transmission from axle to wheels, Phileas was standing still. Friendly operators in Rio Tinto took the oportunity to leash him and pull him around. Not the kind of treatment one would hope for and we could feel that Phileas was taking that personally. However, he was friendly enough to provide us with lots of data from the 360-degree camera, the front-facing camera and the environmental sensor, including temperature, luminance, pressure and acceleration. We guessed that he was happy to be moved after all. Until the battery discharged itself and he went silent.
Summarised, we, the Phileas team, are very happy that the basic architecture of the OBDH and ROCS worked out so well. Despite mechanical difficulties and climate problems we were able to run an alpha test of the communication, remotely update the OBDH, calibrate the locomotion, and get first data. Additionally, we have identified several issues that we can address to make Phileas more robust under severe conditions. We are looking at a bright future with our not-so-little mechanical friend. Or to say it in the words of Phileas:
On Board Data Handling System starting up.
All subsystems ready.
- 23.05.2019 - 01.09.2019: Exhibition: Austria in Space – a country takes off!
- 26.09.2019 - 27.09.2019: Deutsche Astrobiologie Gesellschaft - 4th annual workshop
- 04.11.2019 - 06.11.2019: European Mars Conference
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