NASA Ames 
Tech Space Pavilion 

Computer Museum 

Earliest and Latest 
Modern Robots

NASA Mars Robots
JPL Ancestor Rover
Ames Rover K-9

Ultimate Wireless Mobile Computing

by SFRSA Mediameister 
Cliff Thompson

July 27-28, 
NASA Ames Research Center
Hangar 1
California Air and Space Museum
Moffett Field, CA

A recent NASA Ames News Release announced an exciting robotics event:

  "...NASA TECHNOLOGY TO BE FEATURED AT MOFFETT FIELD AIR EXPO...showcased as the centerpiece of the “Tech Space Pavilion” at the second annual Air Expo at Moffett Field, July 27-28...Housed in historic Hangar One, the display will feature a variety of exhibits highlighting new and emerging technologies.  NASA Ames research will be featured in a 12,000-square-foot interactive display within the Tech Space Pavilion...Featured will be a demonstration of the K-9 robot, one of the most advanced robots developed at Ames..."

After checking in with NASA Ames Learning Technologies Project (LTC) Manager Mark Leon and Robotics Education Project (REP) Coordinator Joe Hering, regarding access to the event, I also called the NASA Ames Computer History Museum to book a tour, then drove down to NASA Ames the day before the event to pick up my "press pass" and check out the Museum. I'd heard that the Museum had recently merged with the Boston Computer Museum, whose collection included the very first modern mobile robots developed at Stanford and JPL in the late '60's (I'd seen them there some years ago, during a break from the Robot Store's ROBOEXPO Boston event, where I was demonstrating LEGO MindStorms robotics kits).  Later, a few days before the Tech Space Pavilion event, I was a volunteer at the grand opening of the DigiBarn Computer Museum in Santa Cruz, where I learned from some guest NASA Ames Computer Museum docents, who were there giving tours of the DigiBarn's Cray 1 exhibit, that the early robots from the Boston Museum were now at the NASA Ames Museum.

A visit to the NASA Ames Computer Museum reveals an impressively vast and comprehensive collection of the evolutionary beginnings of our modern technology. Wandering about in search of the ancestral robots, I spotted them across the room.  There is the machine that perhaps started it all, the robot named "Shakey" from Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in the late '60's (both MIT AI Lab Head Rodney Brooks and Carnegie Mellon Mobile Robot Lab Head Hans Moravec received their early robotics training at Stanford). Below Shakey's diagram is a sign that reads:

"The 'shaky' robot from SRI was the first mobile robot to apply reason to its activities.  Using information from its environment gained from a TV camera, range finder and bump sensors, it could plan and follow a route.  Shaky would radio information to room-sized DEC PDP-10 & DEC PDP-15 computers which, in turn, sent back commands to make the robot move".

Next to Shakey is a very early Jeep-sized NASA JPL Rover with tractor tread "wheels". The Museum also contains a number of special surprises.  On a shelf containing the very first personal computer kits, like the Altair, (from MITS, which briefly employed Bill Gates as programmer just before he co-founded Microsoft with Paul Allen), there is, just to the left of the Altair, a personal computer that came out before it, the "Kenbak". In another room there is the Nazi encoding machine "Enigma". Finally, there is the ultimate in Wireless Mobile Computing, a famed Nomadic Research Labs "Behemoth" bike, which, as it's still surviving website describes, is a "…computerized recumbent bicycle...autonomous mobile information and communication platform... powered and propelled by human and solar power, linked via satellite with global information networks" - you may remember its creator, Stephen Roberts, some years ago peddling across the country, wirelessly transmitting trip reports typed out on specially designed, handlebar-mounted keyboards, while he was simultaneously receiving GPS and e-mail information viewed on a bicycle helmet-mounted wearable computer heads-up display.

The following day was the start of the Air Expo and, in historic Hangar 1's California Air and Space Center (CASC), the Tech Space Pavilion. Many of NASA Ames high-tech departments were running exhibit booths, with the robotics groups at roughly the center, while out on the floor in front of them, in a large roped-off arena, was the K-9 exhibit.  At the booth were NASA Ames roboticists like Anne Wright, while out on the floor NASA Ames roboticist Maria Bualat was demonstrating K-9's abilities, describing how K-9 is a family member of the tribe that includes the JPL Rocky and FIDO Rover series, all prototypes for the upcoming NASA Mars 2004 Mission. Both Maria and Anne, along with NASA Ames roboticist Linda Kobayashi, have attended and given presentations at San Francisco Robotics Society of America meetings. Maria also wrote the Rover Control Software (in C++) that was sending command sequences wirelessly from a laptop to K-9. At one point a transmitted command sequence caused K-9 to independently rotate all "six wheels on soil" and perform a pirouette . Running the software was a local high school student, a young lady who was spending this summer as a NASA Ames robotics intern.  I asked her how she got set up with the intern position and she answered that her teacher, an intern at NASA Ames, got involved in the NASA Ames USFIRST Robotics Competition, which she then participated in, which in turn led to her teacher setting her up with the intern opportunity. I mentioned how I'd also attended the original NASA Ames USFIRST kickoff competition at Hangar 1 a few years back and was particularly inspired by guest speaker Dave Lavery, Program Executive For Solar And Planetary Exploration, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, as he described how NASA's early Rover program, which involved truck-sized machines, was completely turned around by an MIT student's summer intern robotics project at JPL. The MIT intern developed, from off-the-shelf Radio Shack parts, a small Rover named "Tooth" that utilized subsumption architecture to perform tasks that the truck-sized Rover's were still unable to complete.  Dave reached into a box, pulled out and held up Tooth, which he explained led to the Rovers that NASA has since developed to conduct planetary exploration, starting with the Rocky series that saw the successful '97 Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover Mission.  Talking with the intern, I was able to get a good look at Rover Control Station setup, Software and it's various control panels (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).  At one point Maria jumped in to help debug some code with the intern, who in turn was joined by another young lady roboticist. As my visit was wrapping up, and noticing that, pretty much anywhere I looked, the roboticists were women, I found myself reflecting on the contributions of such women robotists as NASA JPL's Donna Shirley, who managed the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover Mission, NASA Ames' Carol Stoker who headed up the joint Russian-American Mars Rover "Marsokhod" testing, and the efforts of Maria, Anne, Linda & K-9's interns at Tech Space Pavilion  (in fact I found myself musing that, regarding any disparity between men and women in engineering, it would appear at NASA, in robotics, from the looks of things today, it could reasonably be argued that "Girls Rule!" ;)

As I complete this report I've received a follow-up news item regarding K-9's brother FIDO, from Exploratorium Science Museum Webcast Production Assistant Alisa Mast-she has emailed me that the upcoming NASA Mars 2004 Mission JPL Robotic Rover "FIDO" (Field Integrated Design & Operations) desert field trials tests will be the subject of an upcoming Exploratorium webcast., at the Webcast Studio, on Monday August 19 '02 starting at 11am & lasting about an hour. The webcast may be viewed from the Exploratorium Webcast Live  link (there may also an archive version later).