9th iSAIRAS conference

Even though the major topic of this conference was not surgical robotics, I was presenting my previous results here, therefore I will write a few lines about is. iSAIRAS stands for International Symposium on Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation is Space. The biannual event takes place in Asia, Europe and America in rotation, the latest was the 9th, organized by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 25-29. February. The venue was the Universal City-Hilton in Los Angeles, CA. The program began with an optional tour to the Palomar observatory (see previous post), after that, from Tuesday to Thursday, there were three plenary sessions a day and 20 minutes presentations in three parallel sessions. Approximately 150 participants came from all over the world, and the scientific committee accepted 98 oral presentations and 20 posters.
The keynote speeches covered the related activities of the major space agencies, or reported extensive field tests from interesting missions. As we got to know, NASA’s main focus is to realize the ambitious plan to get back to the Moon by 2020, and send people to the Mars by 2037. Along this path, they plan several robotic Moon missions, but a Mars sample return only around 2020. (The currently running Mars Science Laboratory project’s rover should be launched in 2009.) They have to take it serious, if they want to keep the lead from Russia and China. ESA supports NASA’s human space flights, but prepares its own robotic Mars mission, the ExoMars (scheduled for 2013). JAXA plans a robotic mission to Moon (Selene 2) in 2010, and extensively support the ISS through its newly delivering Kibo module. Canadians will continue to contribute with major hardware elements, such as the Moon Mobility System.
The majority of the sessions I attended were about design considerations for planetary rovers, to make the robots more efficient on rough terrain. A remarkable presentation was given by JPL fellow Matt Heverly on a wheel-on-limb robot, called ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer). The prototype has six legs, each is a fully functional 6 DOF manipulator that can move on wheels, step through obstacles or hold a tool. Furthermore, there were presentations on the DARPA sponsored successful ASTRO (Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations) mission from last year, when they managed to capture a satellite on orbit with the Canadian robotic hand. DLR plans to conduct a similar experiment on capturing an uncooperative object on orbit with its Lightweight Arm. Other presentations were also interesting, showing new control algorithms and mission architectures, automated designing tools and image based guidance and control; both in theory and practice.
On Wednesday evening, we moved to the nearby Universal Studios - Hollywood, to enjoy the poster session in the Globe Theater. Afterwards, we had a nice dinner with an invited speaker, sci-fi writer David Brin. Beyond publishing, he is also involved in science (and e.g. took part in the committee that named the MER robots). He shared some very interesting views with the audience. He stated that the three most important features we have is the ability to see, know and pay attention; once robots will have it entirely, that will change the society and the world! They will take all our roles, and use us for only the one thing we are best in: wanting. He talked about the singularity of development, an event in the future where the speed of knowledge gathering turns into infinite, and causes some kind of boom or virtual explosion we do not know yet. According to some, this may arrive within a few decades. He said that the big question is whether we can reinvent democracy in the near future and make it work for our society, or people aspiring for more exclusivity (in power) will destroy it and eradicate for an even longer time than after the ancient Romans. After that we went to the nearby IMAX theater and saw the fascinating Discovery movie on the MER robots-Roving Mars. Some key persons of the project, who showed up in the movie, were actually sitting within the audience.
On Friday, we visited the world famous Jet Propulsion Lab. The next post will give details on that tour. All in all, the conference was very successful, showed the best of space robotics. It also gave the opportunity the meet the best professionals of the field. The next iSAIRAS will be in Japan, 2010; all are very welcome!


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