Automating CapCom: Geologists Assisted by Computer ‘Agents' at the Mars Desert Research Station


William J. Clancey, PhD


Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, UWF

Chief Scientist, Human-Centered Computing, NASA-Ames Research Center , Computational Sciences Division, Moffett Field , CA


A team of over 20 geologists, computer scientists, robotics engineers, and communications experts used the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) as a technology development retreat during Rotation 16. They tested and improved a voice-operated computer system that monitored EVA astronauts' health, tracked their locations, and helped keep them on schedule—while recording all conversations and automatically emailing photographs, voice annotations, and tracking data to offsite observers. Our vision is to automate some of the tasks of Apollo's CapCom, based on analysis of the Apollo traverses and prior experience at MDRS. A key approach is to eliminate handling of GPS devices, using names for places and computer representations of EVA plans.


The project is called Mobile Agents because the computers on all-terrain vehicles and the astronauts' backpacks are moving. People and robots have agents , which are computer programs that monitor what is happening, share information over the wireless network, and provide warnings in the astronauts' headphones and over MDRS loudspeakers.


MDRS16 participants came from three NASA centers and two universities:

•  NASA-Ames:

•  Brahms, a distributed ‘multiagent system' (Project Manager: Maarten Sierhuis, Ron van Hoof, Boris Brodsky, Charis Kaskiris)

•  MEX, the Mars EXploration system, a wireless infrastructure (Rick Alena, John Ossenfort, Charles Lee)

•  RIALIST, the voice commanding system (John Dowding, Susana Early).

•  NASA-JSC: ERA, the Extra-Vehicular Activity Robotic Assistant (Jeffrey Graham, Kim Shillcutt, Nathan Howard, Rob Hirsh)

•  NASA-Glenn: High-bandwidth internet communications (Marc Seibert et al.)

•  Stanford-NASA Biocomputation Center : Biosensor network (Sekou Crawford) 

•  SUNY-Buffalo: Geologists simulating an EVA (Abby Semple and Brent Garry).


In a landmark demonstration, EVA data and alerts were emailed automatically from the Lith Canyon field site, over 5 km from MDRS, to Kelly Snook, a space scientist at JSC, and to the Northern California Mars Society support team. This talk will provide an overview of the expedition and details about the Lith Canyon demonstration.


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