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NASA Testing Linux-Based Exploration Robots 137

SeenOnSlash.com writes "This week NASA is testing a Linux-based lunar rover called K-10 in the Arizona desert. To cut costs and promote maintainability the K-10 runs Linux and uses commercial off-the-shelf parts where possible. The robot rover's control and communications system is based on an IBM Thinkpad X31 and attaches to subsystems with standard PC interfaces. Real-time tasks such as fine-grained motor control are offloaded to a distributed network of microcontroller-powered control boards. Maneuvers can be watched through a live webcam."
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NASA Testing Linux-Based Exploration Robots

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  • by product byproduct ( 628318 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @11:57AM (#16114642)
    Does it include a copy of the GPL? Aliens need to know that they are entitled to the source code if they find the probe.
  • Boldly (Score:1, Funny)

    by Cisko Kid ( 987514 )
    To boldly go where no penguin has gone before...

    • And just like ST:TOS, another split infinitive:

      To go boldly where no penguin has gone before.

      But I have a good question:

      Q: Why isn't it running Windows?
      A: It would only be available [at most] six days a week.
      (Remember Patch Tuesday? I can only imagine the number of fixes required for the Interplanetary Edition of Windows XP.)

  • A great Contest (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Moby Cock ( 771358 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:03PM (#16114691) Homepage
    The use of Linux and commercial grade gear for the space program is really quite cool stuff. It makes me think that a really cool contest for NASA would be to have grad students desgn and build a rover/probe and the winner (once vetted by NASA) is actually launched into space. It is probably cost prohibitive but it would be very cool if it happened. It may be a way to break NASA groupthink, and re0invigorate designs with some fresh minds. Not that I'm critisizing NASAs robotics programs, the Mars rovers are a smashing success.
    • Re:A great Contest (Score:4, Insightful)

      by KokorHekkus ( 986906 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:15PM (#16114809)
      The use of Linux and commercial grade gear for the space program is really quite cool stuff. It makes me think that a really cool contest for NASA would be to have grad students desgn and build a rover/probe and the winner (once vetted by NASA) is actually launched into space. It is probably cost prohibitive but it would be very cool if it happened. It may be a way to break NASA groupthink, and re0invigorate designs with some fresh minds. Not that I'm critisizing NASAs robotics programs, the Mars rovers are a smashing success.

      I suspect that the idea here is to cut down development costs, not the build costs for the final implementation. Commercial grade gear just wouldn't cut in space with the extrem temperature swings, cosmic radiation messing with memory or if you end up on Venus god knows what kind of weird atmosphere.

      But someone could actually build a proof of concept design (like they're doing now) that could become the basis for the actual rover. I can't imagine it takes that much more work using Linux than some other solution since there's bound to be a lot of non-standard stuff going on with the rover software.
    • My Theory (Score:4, Funny)

      by Mateo_LeFou ( 859634 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:27PM (#16114902) Homepage
      NASA is so pitifully underbudgeted that none of these machines were Vista-ready anyway.
    • by Ana10g ( 966013 )
      Well, I have a completely different take on this. Let's not look at how to change the thinking of NASA here. Instead, lets look at why they're thinking how they are. They are a monolithic organization with too much on its plate. Let's head back to the heady days when NASA was a scientific organization, doing real, legitimate research. Heavy Lift platforms, while needed for research, are not research in and of themselves.

      Q: How do we fix that?

      A: Allow a private sectory heavy lift industry to devel
  • Awesome! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Si ( 9816 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:07PM (#16114729) Homepage
    But does it run li... oh.
  • by DittoBox ( 978894 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:07PM (#16114735) Homepage
    But, does it run Windows?
  • Longtime Slashdot user makes "rookie mistake" of clicking a webcam link on a recently posted Slashdot article

    and the link was NOT SLASHDOTTED!!!

    some things are too strange to be believed....I don't know if life even makes sense now...
  • I thought red-hat was commercial. I'm glad they are using linux but I always thought that Red-Hat wasnt free. Wouldnt debian or FreeBSD or something else be more "off the shelf" and wouldnt it also saved them some doh?

    Leave it to the government to spend extra money where they dont need too.
    • While I'm probably feeding a troll here, I will say that you're partly right.

      You can get RHEL recompiled for free with things like CentOS and others. You can recompile it yourself with Red Hat's SRPMs. What costs money is support. I doubt any government outfit would use a purely community distro that doesn't have a corporation and paid support staff behind it. That limits them to Red Hat, Suse/Novell, and Ubuntu/Cannonical mostly, and only one of those is a US-based endeavor.

      In addition, TFA has this:
    • It never says what version they're running. They may be using a pre-commercial (ie non RHEL) version of redhat.
  • OTS (Score:5, Funny)

    by faqmaster ( 172770 ) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (mt.senoj)> on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:10PM (#16114756) Homepage Journal
    Off the shelf parts are prolly fine for the Arizona desert. For two years of hard radiation bombardment then two plus years of -100 C and a constant coating of fine dust - not so much. Linux, on the other hand, thanks to its GPL code should have no problem in space. Just
    insmod hard-rad-i386-0.16
    and then
    modprobe cryo-chillin-i386-0.9
    and it should be fine. Also, don't forget to update crontab with
    10 4 1 * * /root/scripts/dustoff.sh >> /dev/null 2>&1
  • install Mac OS X?
  • I was always under the impression that any probes/landers had to use "rad-hardened" processors to deal with the solar radiation in space. Is this less of a concern for rovers and the like since they could be adequately shielded until entering the atmosphere of another planet/moon? Meanwhile, get a load of the wacky space Centaur!: http://www.linuxdevices.com/files/misc/nasa_drats_ centaur.jpg [linuxdevices.com]
    • by Speare ( 84249 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:27PM (#16114906) Homepage Journal

      One, this is a development model. Hardware subject to upgrade when making a "real" unit after the software achieves a basic level of maturity.

      Two, you don't need a rad-hardened processor if you can wrap the whole computing unit in a rad-hardened box. Same goes for putting ice cubes in your freezer; if the fridge's materials and power units can withstand a thermal bombardment from the outside, the ice cube inside will remain solid.

      • Two, you don't need a rad-hardened processor if you can wrap the whole computing unit in a rad-hardened box. Same goes for putting ice cubes in your freezer; if the fridge's materials and power units can withstand a thermal bombardment from the outside, the ice cube inside will remain solid.

        There's an important difference between an ice cube and a microprocessor. You see, if a single energetic photon happens to enter the box, and melts a little bit ice, it refreezes almost immediately and you'll never k

      • by oringo ( 848629 )
        More accurately, this is a proof-of-concept. An prototype would've required at least something that would work over the industrial temperature range. The thinkpad would probably die at temperatures above 60C.
        • Nah. Didn't you see the case fans on the side of the K-10? Perfect for keeping it cool in that lunar environment.
          • I would like to point out the irony of attempting to use fans for cooling on a lunar mission.

            (Hint: Lunar = hard vacuum = no air for the fans to move. Of course, for a *Mars* mission, it would work slightly better - but not much, because Martian air is quite thin.)
            • I would like to point out the irony in your attempt to educate me on the moon's lack of atmosphere. Wow. The moon's in a vacuum. I had no idea. This is like, the greatest thing ever. Has our language downgraded so much that you need a :-) at the end of a sentence to realize it's a joke?

              (Hint: It was a joke. Obviously the K-10 roaming around in the fucking heat of the desert needs case fans, but the actual lunar module will have to have it's temerature regulated in another way. IANARS, but I am ful

      • Unfortunately, a Mars mission doesn't have the mass budget for that much radiation shielding, either during the cruise stage or on the planet (which still has a lot more ionizing radiation reaching the surface than Earth does due to the lack of a strong magnetic field + much thinner atmosphere; otherwise, the Odyssey gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers [arizona.edu] wouldn't work so well). The processors still have to be radiation-hardened.
  • by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:11PM (#16114773)
    Why don't they just use a MALP [wikipedia.org]?
  • At last, I'm on the same level as NASA for computing power, x31 users around the world can now claim their laptops are space-age technology. Kick ass!
  • It would be interesting to see which distro NASA picked, and for what reasons. Guesses anyone?
    • FTA:
      The K-10 runs Red Hat Linux, which NASA says was chosen for its large user base and application compatibility. Additionally, NASA notes that, "Linux's flexibility and scalability enable us to easily add, remove, and extend devices with minimal difficulty."

      That'll teach me to read the damn article first next time.
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      For a lunar rover, it has to be Lunatix [lunatix-linux.org].
  • Victory! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Once again, Linux proves itself as the OS of choice whenever you couldn't care less about the OS.

    The robots are driven by custom robot-specific software that has nothing to do with the OS underneath. The main reason Linux gets used in such an application (or in supercomputers, clusters, etc) is simply that the OS doesn't matter enough for anyone to bother, so they'll grab the nearest thing on the shelf.

    It's not like there's some feature of the OS that makes it especially robot-friendly.
    • Of course there is (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Mateo_LeFou ( 859634 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:31PM (#16114933) Homepage
      Namely: it can be dismantled, optimized and modified to your heart's content. Which is a lot, when every millimeter of length and every gram of mass has to be accounted for.
      • by Have Blue ( 616 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @01:04PM (#16115198) Homepage
        Yeah, it's great that you can tweak your makefile to shave a few extra grams off the kernel here and there.
        • That's basically true.
          Less code requires less storage space.
          Since I doubt these use HDDs every die of Flash you don't have to use is a few grams removed from the payload weight. (sorry to spoil your joke).

          Also, It's not so much that linux is robot friendly, it's that in this case windows would be so un-friendly as to make the choice more obvious *(yes I realise that they likely were contemplating someting like linux Vs VxWorks, not linux Vs Windows).
          -nB
        • Well, I assume that's a joke and if so, it's funny

          If not: F with the kernel and you can run it on a smaller processor. Or you can have it drive more efficient microcontrollers, sit on a whole new motherboard, etc.

          As a matter of fact, for robots above a certain level of complexity I don't see how a closed-source kernel could possibly work.
  • Moo (Score:5, Funny)

    by Chacham ( 981 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @12:14PM (#16114806) Homepage Journal
    In other news, Richard Stallman slammed NASA for using GPL code, but not allowing everyone to pilot the robot or go on space mission.

    In a statement released today, NASA has responded by offering to send Stallman to Mars.
    • Breaking news:

      Aliens from Mars have sent a response, please wait we are decoding it now....

      You can keep him!
      • by Chacham ( 981 )
        Heh.

        Of course, Stallman will ignore that message, because Martian is not an open source language.
  • Must be K9's bigger brother (Robot dog from Dr. Who)
  • Is NASA testing these off-the-shelf components for use in a vaccuum? Under intense radiation? Under extreme heat differentials? In the presence of moon dust?

    Are they checking to make sure each component actually meets all the specifications, or are they relying on the industry's statistics that most of the boards meet most of the specs most of the time?

    If something breaks, who is paying for the support call? How will parts be replaced on site?

    • Is NASA testing these off-the-shelf components for use in a vaccuum? Under intense radiation? Under extreme heat differentials? In the presence of moon dust?

      My guess is they're still working on getting the acpi driver to work on the Thinkpad. After that, they'll work on turning off the backlight. The vacuum/intense radiation stuff is next.
  • it's not the desktop!
  • I am not sure if the Thinkpad will be supported by IBM in space. It may void the warranty.
  • I am sure I would be glad to see Linux get "out" more. Its easily customized and can be made to run on damed near anything so I am sure it would work quite well. By using Linux I am sure they can save a bundle on licenses to development software in the short term. However, I am unsure about the rest (the bit the reviewer stated, on this really saving cost in the long run).

    I always thought that much of the real cost of a "space" probe (besides getting actually it there) was the space hardened chips and
  • If the thing has wifi, I've gotta find me a giant pringles can [oreillynet.com] .
  • What were they running before?

    *fear*
  • I'm curious what the power use/battery impact is of having all those hubs and multiplexers and ethernet bridge things, instead of just a computer with lots of I/O ports. Anyone worked on this kind of thing before?
    • by doomday ( 948793 )
      The K-10 rover runs on 20x 95w li-ion batteries, I think it takes around 8 hours to run out of power
  • I worked this summer at NASA Ames on an internship, particularly designing a control/power system for an arm thats to be mounted on K-10. The reason they used Red Hat Linux is because it is the system they use throughout the Ames base on the regular linux desktop machines, and it probably allows them to consolidate some maintenance without dealing with multiple distros. Also, its not designed to be space-ready, its basically a test bed for developing software and effective techniques for operation, that wou
  • It should be clear that these aren't NASA engineers designing spacecraft, these are researchers (both NASA and university) doing experiments. They use Linux for the libraries, tools, and as a generally powerful and well-known development environment.
  • The days of NASA designing their own systems from scratch using proprietary stuff should be just about over. While in days of yore, there really wasn't much in the way of "off the shelf" parts, and NASA (had to/ could get a way with) large R&D budgets for designing tech gear, at this point its better they focused their thing (exploration/safer rockets/advanced propulsion) and let the tech community do the computer hardware/software design. Its a function of ROI- Apple/MS/Intel/IBM/Moto/Linux etc. ha
  • Does anyone know what OS they were using before? I expect they may have been rolling their own rather than using a competing OS. If so, the big news here is:
    a) that they're using an "off the shelf OS" (as well as off the shelf hardware)
    and then
    b) that the OS in question is Linux.

    I scanned TFA but saw no mention of what OS (if any) they used before.

    Still cool though!
  • by ScottMaxwell ( 108831 ) on Friday September 15, 2006 @01:25PM (#16115372) Homepage
    At least one of the other robots participating in the test, ATHLETE [nasa.gov], is also Linux-based (PPC CPUs, incidentally, not x86). How do I know? I'm writing part of the software we're using to drive it -- by adapting RSVP [linuxjournal.com], the software we wrote to drive the MER rovers -- so I actually got to go out there and drive ATHLETE around for a few days as part of this test.

    I love my job.

    ATHLETE is one of the coolest damn things I've seen in a long time, designed and built by a team of absolutely brilliant engineers. Think of a two-meter-tall six-legged metal spider on roller skates. Or, heck, just check the link above.

    The current ATHLETE is a prototype (of course); the ones we send to the moon -- if we're selected -- will be twice that size. Yes, Slashdotters, welcome our four-meter-tall six-legged roller-skate-wearing metal spider overlords!

    For additional coverage of K-10, ATHLETE, Centaur/Robonaut, and other vehicles participating in this test, check out the updates from JSC [nasa.gov].

    • It just need a Brain in a jar and some vulcan cannons to be a Spider-Mind!
    • Are those cooling fans on K10?!
    • Manufacturing, considering that the original mars probes lasted several times as long as expected, what are the chances of sending up new robots that actually I don't know build something (More robots?), some kind of melting laser and a sand shaping appendage and pour your own robot parts?

      The things are solar powered last a long time and have precise software controls any chance of designing them to build some simple but reusable tools?
  • I thought the US administration had announced that Lenovo kit was off limits. I suppose this means that the policy exists only for new projects (reasonably enough or, more accurately, less unreasonable since I thought the policy was pretty silly anyway).
  • I guess this means Linux has finally Jumped the Shark [jumptheshark.com]?

    I think it is pretty much a universally accepted fact making something "In Space" [imdb.com] is pretty much an undeniable jump the shark moment.
  • More robots are linux based.

    A robot is a set of custom communicating processes and threads, with sensor and motor drivers.

    What other OS has the level of control needed to get this done, while having a large user base?
    • by kst ( 168867 )
      A robot is a set of custom communicating processes and threads, with sensor and motor drivers.

      No, a robot is "your plastic pal who's fun to be with" (Sirius Cybernetics Corporation)
  • IF martions get linux then they will infolterte are computers and attack earth repent the end is near
  • Do the robots fight over vi vs. emacs? KDE vs. Gnome? Redhat vs. SuSE vs. Debian vs. Slackware vs. Ubuntu?
  • Once that Thinkpad is on the Moon, I bet the cooling fan will have to run really really really fast!
  • Especially the X31. The only thing I have trouble with on it with Linux is the wireless. I am still at an old 2.6.7 kernel because of that. Should invest the time to upgrade in th near future.

    Other than that this machine is perfectly capable of running complex stuff. And at slowest speed (600MHz), it consumes about 9W with the display on darkest and wireless off. Well suited for the job, I would think.

     

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