Feature

NASA Issues 'A Question to the World'
04.02.10
 

Imagine a close flyby mission to Mars, where micro sensors are deposited into the atmosphere over half an orbit or more.

The sensors, captured by the atmospheric drag and Martian gravity, slowly descend, buffeted about by Martian winds and weather until they settle on the surface a great time later. (Think of how long dust takes to settle.)

As they descend they communicate a vast array of data: temperature, chemistry, pressure, electric or magnetic properties from a huge region of the planet and an individual sensor need not measure the same quantity as its neighbors.

Initially they could move at the whim of the environment, but later versions could have locomotion or propulsion mechanisms. Humans wouldn't need to decide where they go, they do that for themselves.

This is a key strength of a sensor swarm. The intelligence relies on the group, not on a decision-maker on Earth. Real-time sensor inputs direct what the swarm considers most interesting to investigate resulting in "emergent behavior."



Because an idea can come from anywhere, Mel Ferebee and Erik Vedeler are leading an initiative to get more people involved in NASA's innovation process.

Melvin Ferebee
Click to enlarge

Melvin 'Mel' Ferebee.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

They decided to "issue a question to the world and have the wisdom and knowledge of the crowd solve it," said Ferebee, who heads up the Participatory Exploration team at NASA Langley.

To make that wisdom and knowledge flow, it was necessary to prime the pump.

"You motivate the crowd with an award, in this case $20,000," Ferebee said.

The deadline for answers is April 26, and more than 250 have been filed so far.

The program is part of a desire to interact with the public in a new and different way. Most of that interaction now comes from the agency and its centers, answering questions it asks itself, then issuing white papers or being interviewed for scientific stories to communicate that information.

"But the smartest people sometimes aren't at NASA's Langley Research Center," Ferebee said. "The thought is that we can be innovative by getting the collective knowledge, by getting the folks outside the NASA gate engaged in our problem."

With that aim, Ferebee sought questions from among the nine strategic opportunity teams, which were set up to find problems and sell Langley's ability to solve them.

Enter Vedeler, who heads the Frontier Sensors Strategic Opportunity team. His group is seeking new and different ways to use sensors, and Vedeler has a particular interest in the potential of sensor swarms in exploration.

Click to enlarge

Erik Vedeler.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

"If you think about the human brain, you've got millions of neurons, and it's the interconnectivity of these simple things that makes our brain as complex as it is," he said, explaining the logic of sensor swarms. He also points to the collective actions of flocks of birds and schools of fish in avoiding prey or finding food.

Linking the concept to exploration wasn't difficult.

"I just had in my own mind, suppose you want to send a probe to Mars?" Vedeler said. "You want to know the atmospheric chemistry and dynamics. You might want to know about methane. You might want to know about other measurable life signs.

"So you go there, but rather than having a probe like we've always done, Viking or Sojourner or Spirit and Opportunity, where single things come down at a single place on the planet to collect information" you instead have a vehicle fly over the planet and open a tank to release micro sensors into the atmosphere that could number in the tens of thousands."

On their way to the planet's surface, the sensors measure different things and communicate with each other, forming a sort of artificial brain. Perhaps they have locomotion. Above all, they are relatively cheap and plentiful.

"The swarming concept implies that with 80 percent sensor failure you can still have 100 percent mission success," Vedeler said. "Evidence in biological systems supports these numbers."

With all of that as background, "how do you convert it to something that's engineering?" he added. "That's the challenge."

With a grant of $46,000, including logistics with Innocentive.com, a research firm, and the prize money, Ferebee is seeking the answer from the general public.

"The thought is that we can be innovative by getting the collective knowledge of folks outside the NASA gate involved in our problem," Ferebee said.

That they might not be scientists or engineers has occurred to him and Vedeler and is not an issue. Ferebee tells the story of a concrete manufacturer who helped solve the problem of cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Price Edward Sound in Alaska offering a chemical that was used to get concrete over long distances.

"It turns out that it also can be used to break down oil and make it slush enough to pump out," Ferebee said.

And, at Johnson Space Center, which pioneered the innovation challenge process, people are seeking a way to predict solar events that generate radiation that can be dangerous to humans exploring the moon or other planets.

"They are providing an awful lot of data," Ferebee said. "You would think that all of the radiation guys are looking through all of this data, but that doesn't mean that stockbrokers, who also deal with a lot of data, can't look through it and find trends because that's what they look for."

So biologists could offer the answer to sensor swarms exploring Mars, Vedeler said. Or computer scientists used to working with swarms of information on the Internet. Or anybody.

Or nobody. They are seeking an algorithm, but perhaps it's a problem that can't be answered in a $20,000 challenge. If there's no acceptable answer, there's no payment.

Ferebee hopes that isn't the case.

"I'm looking for a win, a solution, because I want to sell the senior staff to do more of this," he said. "I haven't biased this, but I do want the first one to be solvable because I want there to be a second."

And a third and a fourth.

"I want to be able to issue a challenge a month," Ferebee said. "That is my goal. I think there are enough problems at the center. We have a pavilion for some of these problems, and I'd like to do my part to keep it alive."

The challenge Web site:

https://gw.innocentive.com/ar/challenge/9232382


 
 
Jim Hodges
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center