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Rovers Get New Driving Capability (Animation)
Animation that uses color to dipict the rover's drive

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Until recently, NASA's two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, could figure only one or two steps ahead in planning a path and driving on their own. New software uploaded to the rovers onboard computers now enables them to look ahead and plan a path to a spot 50 meters (164 feet) away, evading obstacles along the way. With this software, called "Field D-Star" path planner and developed at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, the rovers could find their way out of a maze.

Opportunity ran the first test of its smarter autonomous driving capability on the rover's 1,014th sol, or Martian day (Nov. 30, 2006). This animation uses color codings to depict that drive. Red areas are "keep-out" zones established by human rover drivers to prevent Opportunity from getting too close to the edge of "Victoria Crater." White represents unknown areas. Green represents areas that would be safe to traverse based on stereo images taken by the rover's navigation cameras. The moving purple diamond represents Opportunity itself. The blue line is the most efficient path to the desired destination. During this particular 10.5-meter (34-foot) drive, Opportunity's new software was still only a backseat driver, watching what happened and making plans but letting the rest of the system handle the driving. The rover still relied on the one-step-ahead system it had been using before getting the new software. Future tests will put the software directly in the driver's seat. So far, tests have been successful.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CMU