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Autonomous Navigation in GNSS-Denied Environments


Current NASA research/development and mission capabilities for exploration of remote planetary surfaces are primarily focused on automated telerobotic systems dependent on human control. More fully autonomous systems will be required for future missions, particularly where communications with Earth may be limited, unavailable for extended periods of time and have significant delays.

This subtopic is to investigate the autonomous navigation capabilities required for land and possibly aerial vehicle operation in areas lacking GNSS and/or magnetic compass to expanded exploration roles within planetary environments. A specific area of interest is to investigate biologically inspired algorithms and capabilities, such as techniques us by insects, such as Honey Bees, to accomplish this goal. Optical flow, image motion across the field of vision, offers unique capabilities for hazard detection and avoidance, landmark navigation, distance judgment, cave navigation, speed regulation, and visual odometry. Current technology is very computationally intensive. It is desired that with hardware support, high speed optic flow measurements can be obtained to speed up and simplify the extraction of motion information from the visual scene, which would both enhance obstacle and hazard detection and avoidance, as well as speed up the navigation process. This will be very critical if VTOL flight [on Mars] can be achieved, as a fuel-limited, in-motion VTOL vehicle is ill positioned to wait for a complicated and time consuming image analysis to be accomplished. Additionally, current laser scanner/imaging technology used for generating terrestrial 3D maps have mass and power requirements that are excessive for smaller planetary robotic exploration systems. Low mass, low power 3D mapping systems accommodated on planetary missions could be employed to support autonomous vehicle navigation and maneuvering operations. One example would be a parent vehicle that could launch multiple smaller vehicles that would autonomously explore larger regions and then navigate back to the parent vehicle to transmit data and refuel. In addition to navigation, these vehicles could gather detailed, photorealistic 3D maps that can be fused with associated science data and used by scientists, students, and the general public for "participatory exploration" activities.

Initial activities would include an assessment of current technology capabilities that could be compared to requirements to identify technology gaps, lay out a technology development roadmap, and develop a software simulation of proposed system and operation. Subsequent activities would include component and system developments in accordance with the roadmap, leading to the development of a prototype system capable autonomous navigation in environments that do not allow GNSS or magnetic compass navigation and have limited or no communication between vehicles.

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