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Research and Academics
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AI Control System Enables Spacecraft to Think for Themselves
Move over HAL. Scientists have developed “sysbrain,” which gives spacecraft the ability to identify problems, perform repairs, and decide how to carry out tasks.
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Feb 15, 2011

Professor Sandor Veres with a satellite model at the University of Southampton’s test facility. (Photo: Courtesy University of Southampton)

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An artificially intelligent control system called “sysbrain” has been developed by Professor Sandor Veres and his team of engineers at the University of Southampton that will enable engineers to program satellites and spacecraft to think for themselves.

Using natural language programming (NLP), the software agents can read special English language technical documents on control methods. This gives the spacecraft advanced guidance, navigation, and feedback capabilities to stop them from crashing into other objects, as well as the ability to adapt during missions, identify problems, carry out repairs, and make their own decisions about how best to carry out a task.

“This is the world’s first publishing system of technical knowledge for machines and opens the way for engineers to publish control instructions to machines directly,” says Veres, who is leading the EPSRC-funded project. “As well as spacecrafts and satellites, this innovative technology is transferable to other types of autonomous vehicles, such as autonomous underwater, ground, and aerial vehicles.”

To test the control systems that could be applied in a space environment, Veres and his team constructed a unique test facility and a fleet of satellite models, which are controlled by the sysbrain cognitive agent control system.

The Autonomous Systems Testbed consists of a glass-covered, precision level table surrounded by a metal framework, which is used to mount overhead visual markers, observation cameras, and isolation curtains to prevent any external light sources from interfering with experimentation. Visual navigation is performed using onboard cameras to observe the overhead marker system located above the test area. This replicates how spacecraft would use points in the solar system to determine their orientation.

The model satellites, which rotate around a pivot point with mechanical properties similar to real satellites, are placed on the table and glide across it on roller bearings almost without friction to mimic the zero-gravity properties of space. Each model has eight propellers to control movement, a set of inertia sensors, and additional cameras to be “spatially aware” and to “see” each other. The model’s skeletal robot frame also allows various forms of hardware to be fitted and experimented with.

“We have invented sysbrains to control intelligent machines,” says Veres. “Sysbrain is a special breed of software agents with unique features such as natural language programming to create them, human-like reasoning, and most importantly they can read special English language documents in “system English” or “sEnglish.” Human authors of sEnglish documents can put them on the Web as publications, and sysbrain can read them to enhance their physical and problem solving skills. This allows engineers to write technical papers directly for sysbrain that control the machines.”

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