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Robot Nomad of the Desert

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While NASA’s Sojourner robot spent its summer exploring Mars, another plucky robot was being put through its paces on tough terrain here on Earth. On June 18, Nomad--a truck-size robot developed by engineers at Carnegie Mellon and nasa--embarked on a trek across Chile’s barren Atacama Desert. The 1,600-pound four-wheeled machine was driven by operators in the United States via a satellite link and covered 133 miles during its month- and-a-half-long journey. Speeds peaked at around a mile an hour. Nomad wasn’t built for speed, though. It was designed to test a number of new technologies for planetary exploration, including a camera capable of sending 360-degree video images to operators back home, sensors and metal detectors for uncovering meteorites, and a new navigational system called safeguarded teleoperation. Nomad is operated remotely, but it detects the terrain coming up, and if there is anything dangerous, it will steer around it or stop, says graduate student Martin Martin of Carnegie Mellon. To avoid the expense of solar panels, Nomad’s batteries were charged by a gasoline generator, which handlers refueled every night. Solar panels would replace those generators on a real space mission.

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