I’m not Dead

However I’ve been really busy working with Google’s project Tango. I encourage you to watch the video if you haven’t already.

What is NASA doing with project Tango? Well currently there is a very vague article available here. However the plan is to apply Tango to the SPHERES project to perform visual navigation. Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed with trying to meet the schedule of 0-g testing and all the hoops there are with getting hardware and software onboard the ISS. This has left very little time to write, let alone sleep. In a few weeks NASA export control will have gone over our collected data and I’ll be able to share here.

In the short term, project Tango represent an amazing opportunity to perform local mapping. The current hardware has little application to the large-scale satellite mapping that I usually discuss. However I think the ideas present in project Tango will have application in low-cost UAV mapping. Something David Shean of U of W has been pursuing. In the more immediate term I think the Tango hardware would have application to scientists wanting to perform local surveys of a glacial wall, cave, or anything you can walk all over. It’s ability to export its observations as a 3D model makes it perfect for sharing with others and perform long-term temporal studies. Yes the 3D sensor won’t work outside, however stereo observations and post processing with things like Photoscan are still possible with the daylight imagery. Tango will then be reduced to providing an amazing 6-DOF measurement of where each picture was taken. If this sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to apply for a prototype device! I’d be interested in helping you tackle a scientific objective with project Tango.

This picture is of Mark and I dealing with our preflight jitters of being onboard the “Vomit Comet” while 0-g testing the space-rated version of Project Tango. This shares my current state of mind. Also, there aren’t enough pictures of my ugly mug on this blog. I’m the guy on the right.

I pretend to be a part of HET SPHERES

I do other things beside develop Ames Stereo Pipeline. I actually have to this month because my projects’ budgets are being used to pay for other developers. This is a good thing because it gets dug in developers like me out of the way for a while so that new ideas can come in. One of the projects I occasionally get to help out on is HET Spheres.

This is a picture of that robot. The orange thingy is the SPHERE robot designed by MIT. The blue puck is an air carriage so we can do frictionless testing in 1G. There have been 3 SPHERES robots onboard the ISS for quite some time now and they’ve been hugely successful. However we wanted to have an upgrade of the processing power available on the SPHERES. We also wanted better wireless networking, cameras, additional sensors, and a display to interact with the Astronauts. While our manager, lord, and savior Mark listed off all these requirements, we attentively played angry birds. That’s when it suddenly became clear that all we ever wanted was already available in our palms. We’ll use cellphones! So, though crude, we glued a cellphone to the SPHERE and called it a day.

Actually a lot more work happened then that and you can hear about that in Mark’s Google Tech Talk. I also wasn’t involved in any of that work. I tend to do other stuff that is SPHERES development related. But I spent all last week essentially auditing the console side code and the internal SPHERE GSP code. I remembered why I don’t like Java and Eclipse. (I have to type slower so Eclipse will autocomplete. :/) This all collimated into the following video of a test of having the SPHERE fly around a stuffed robot. We ran out of CO2 and our PD gains for orientation control are still out-of-whack, but it worked!

Ames Multi-Mission Operations Center

When I think of NASA Ames, I think of a center that does a lot of the initial work on projects. I always thought Ames was the place where the engineers ran the numbers and tested if spacecraft could transition through the atmosphere safely. Direct flight operations always seemed to happen elsewhere. It turns out that’s not entirely true as I happened to visit Ames’s very own Multi-Mission Operations Center (MMOC) last week.

The group I hung out with was providing technical support for Astronaut Don Pettit who was installing an expansion port for the SPHERES robots. The challenging part was that the engineers are not allowed to talk to the Astronaut directly. There’s a lag in communication and the sound quality is not too great, so it would be very easy to confuse and frustrate the man in space. All engineers had to talk through PAYCOM in Huntsville, who would then repeat in one voice to Don. One funny thing to note, all the NASA positions, except Astronauts, are referred to by an acronym or location. So on the voice loops, we have Hunstville, Ames, PAYCOM, POD, and then simply ‘Don’ talking.

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My tour ended up being 6 hours of watching an Astronaut remove 12 screws in space. That sounds a bit gloomy, but there’s a reason for all of the delays. He needed a soldering iron to heat the screws and release the Loctite. This caused venting concerns which meant that Don had to spend time setting up a plastic enclosed workspace. Don also had to use specific numbers from MIT for his torque wrench to avoid stripping the screw’s standoffs. It’s pretty costly to send replacement parts back on to the ISS. Then in the middle of the job, Don had to fly off to watch Progress docking with fresh supplies. There’s also the problem where we don’t have continuous video or voice connections with the ISS. Every so often the engineers would have to deal with a 3 minute black out. These are not all the details of the problems that happened that day, but hopefully you can see how what would be a 30-minute job in your garage can become a massive pain to replicate on the ISS.

During the downtimes, it was fun to just talk to the people on comms. I also found out that Ames has their very own clean room where they’re assembling LADEE. At the very least, the whole trip was worth the small glimpse into the stress that can be flight operations. It also showed me how Astronauts are micromanaged in space. Realize that those people live in a world where at least 6 other people are monitoring them remotely at all times. I freak out just when my boss walks by.