Thursday, June 11, 2015

That Time I Drove a Martian Rover Through a Dust Storm.... in a simulation

There I was telerobotically operating a Martian Rover. Through the camera I could indistinctly see the Martian landscape, it was obscured by a massive dust storm taking place. With a max speed of ~0.2 km/h, I was slow and steady but using my joystick I eventually was able to navigate the rover to Valentina, an astronaut waiting for it to arrive. Wheew, that was tough! Despite the poor visibility I was able to find Valentina through a distinct sound providing a sort of 3D acoustic locator. I spent the next two hours attempting to locate Neil, Valentina, The Spirit Rover, Wall-E the Rover and the Martian base through a combination of both visual and auditory cues. This simulation was part of an experiment at NASA Ames, where I work, to test navigational displays.

In the experiment I played the role of an astronaut telerobotically operating a Martian Rover. I drove the rover around Mars on a set path and at certain points in time I was asked the location of an object, "Is Valentina to your left or right?". Using a 2D map that showed the location of everything and.or sound (with a map and no sound, with sound and no map, with a map and sound) I was supposed to identify in a matter of seconds where different things were located. There was more, the rover had 4 gauges, CO2, O2, H2O and Batt, these needed to be reset randomly and periodically.
Gauges, in the upper left and 2D Map in the lower left

To start it was overwhelmingly complicated, Valentina's sound was a foot stomping, Neil was a foot crunching on gravel(or regolith for the space nerds), Spirit was a engine revving, Wall-E was an old engine knocking and the Base was a waterfall. Depending on their location in 3D space determined how loud you heard the sounds(distance) and also in which headphone, right or left, you heard the sound(direction). So there I am navigating this course, resetting the gauges and attempting to keep clear what direction everything was located in!

Initially I thought the task was so difficult that I would be making lots of errors. After a bit of training though I was crushing it. I figured out that I didn't need to know where everything was at one time just half of where everything was. For instance, if I knew Neil and Spirit were to my right, that means that Valentina, Wall-E and the Base were to my left. The sounds added alot, I could take my eyes off the 2D map and focus on the gauges or driving and use the sounds temporarily when I needed to.

I felt that the simulation with only a 2D Map was the most difficult because it required my eyes to be doing 3 things simultaneously, the gauges, the driving and the location of everything. I would often mix up the right and left directions because I would lose focus of one task. It's an interesting question I wish to explore.research, how many tasks can a human hold in their focus at one time? Can we train ourselves to do more?(that's going in the ideas document)

The amount of focus required by me was immense, white knuckle style, gripping the joystick tight. In the next few weeks I will participate in another experiment that involves docking in outer space.

You're just jealous. I can see it.