What space robots can teach us about disaster prepping

Robots in space are undoubtedly awesome, but they could also have some valuable lessons to teach us about disaster responses here on earth.

Brett Kennedy, who led the teams that engineered both Robosimian and the robotic arm for Curiosity's Mars-bound rover, joined us today to answer some questions about robotics, including how RoboSimian picked up its nickname "Clyde" (after Clint Eastwood's orangutan co-star in Every Which Way But Loose), and the difference between a robot and a drone ("a [remote control] car is a drone, your self-parking car is a robot.").

But this response, on how engineers prepare robots to deal with blackout communication conditions on Mars — and how a similar system could help guide robots dealing with disaster response — was especially interesting:

I don't imagine that the process and autonomy need be much different than what we do for the Mars rovers. They can operate for weeks or months without human input. Because they are extremely valuable assets, and the scientists want to change the plan based on the most recent information, we do tend to check on them daily.

The disaster scenario is actually quite analogous because we cannot count on connectively to the robot. During the competition, DARPA actually throttled or blacked-out communication to simulate this reality. This is another reason that the robots appeared "slow". If the robots were waiting for a commands during the blackout, then the audience would see the robot sitting there. RoboSimian is specifically designed to be a patient robot, and can be safely left alone in the field for arbitrary lengths of time.

Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech