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Rovers Get New Driving Capability (Site of Test)
Overhead view of Mars taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter with a superimposed software image

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 overhead view shows the site of the test. The rover's software path (inside the blue box) is superimposed upon an image taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a portion of image PIA08813. Around the rover are the sands of Meridiani Planum; "Victoria Crater" is on the right. Red areas are "keep-out" zones established by human rover drivers to prevent Opportunity from getting too close to the edge of the crater. Green represents areas that would be safe to traverse based on stereo images taken by the rover's navigation cameras. The purple diamond represents Opportunity and the blue diamond the destination. 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/Univ. of Arizona/CMU

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