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NASA extends olive branch to robots for moon mission

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Robo Developer NASA intends to get more touchy-feely with robots before they take off for the moon again.

Their attempts to reach out to the robot community really took off in the last few years when NASA changed its exploration focus from the international space station to returning to the moon. They even made an dramatic Hollywood-like "preview" of the mission to prove it. (And if you want to show something is real, Hollywood is definitely the way to go.)

"You probably noticed the majority of the footage is CG," said Terry Fong, a NASA Director speaking yesterday at the Robo Development conference in San Jose. "I guarantee in 10 to 15 years that this can be replaced with real footage."

Unlike the previous Apollo moon missions, NASA will be investing heavily in robotics this time round. And so, NASA developed the Human-Robotics Systems Project which, Fong said. is one of its most heavily funded programs in 10 years.

The main themes of the Human Robotics System program are surface mobility, surface handling, and interestingly, human-systems interactions.

Some are more equal than others

The relations between humans and their robot counterparts are of great importance to NASA. For instance, there's no "side of the road" to threaten to pull a rocket over to if the bots are getting rambunctious. But it goes deeper than that.

"In a traditional interaction, a human is the user and the robot is a tool," said Fong. "This works great for some things, but not for others. We are trying to make humans and robots have more equal roles."

Sounds like dangerous talk. Those who lie down with robots wake up with critical errors.

"When robots run into trouble, they don't ask for help or seek advice. That's something they need to do," said Fong. "Robots will need to overcome these limitations. Robots and humans need to support each other."

Fong believes that for successful space exploration, robots and humans need to function as partners. Robots need to understand how humans work as a team, and humans need to be comfortable functioning with them.

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