Graham, a 1991 LSU graduate, nicknamed Boudreaux in honor of his college buddy, John “Boosey” Boudreaux of Metairie. Thibodeaux comes from “all those jokes about Boudreaux and Thibodeaux,” said Graham, the project lead who was working on the robot’s voice when he came up with the names.
“You wouldn’t believe how many questions I get about the names,” he said from Houston.
Boudreaux is the oldest, about 5 years old, and his capabilities are mind-boggling. He runs on four wheels and is 5 feet tall, 3 feet wide, 4 feet long and weighs about 400 pounds. “He’s fully autonomous—you can tell him what to do and he does it,” Graham said. “There’s no joystick.”
The robots can reply to a question or a command.
“It’s a very terse conversation,” Graham said, “and it’s a very mechanical voice. But you can listen and tell the difference between the two.”
Boudreaux can move as fast as a space-suited astronaut, so he can keep up with them, which is important. He can carry tools and he is strong. The commercial robot was “bought off the shelf for about $50,000,” Graham said. “We mutated it.” Another $300,000 investment brought on a huge mechanical arm and hand. Also added were cameras, instruments, a GPS (global positioning system) and laptop computers.
He can keep moving not quite as long as the Energizer bunny—about four hours of activity on one set of batteries.
“Humans are best suited for some tasks and robots for others,” he said.
Robots, for example, can easily pick up a dropped tool or rock samples, chores that are tedious and challenging for an astronaut wearing a cumbersome space suit. The astronauts can converse quite easily with the robots and yes, they are obedient.
Graham said right now the focus is on improving interaction between the astronauts and robots. However, the rovers can go solo and be used as advance patrols on a mission. “We do let them pre-scout an area to see if it’s worth the risk for humans,” he said, “sort of like a pack mule.”
Tests were conducted last year at the Mars Desert Research Center in Utah, an area that simulates the Red Planet’s surface more closely than any other area in the United States. More tests will be conducted in April. “We’re going back with newer scenarios,” he said. “It should be a good challenge. Every year we try to add more complexity.”
Boudreaux has the wherewithal to plot his own route through rocky terrain, keeping the astronauts and Mission Control informed of his location through the laptops.
“Isn’t it cool?” said Graham, sounding like the youngster who got hooked on this field when he watched the Apollo missions on television. Now 10 years with the program and seven in the field, he says what he’s involved with makes him “fat, dumb and happy.” In other words, he loves it.
“What’s happening here is that robotics are starting to (benefit from) the miniaturization of computer parts,” he said. That technological advance has already resulted in the development of robotic vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers; now it’s heading into space.
Even though it may be more than a decade until NASA’s next manned space mission, Boudreaux and his sidekick should be long perfected by then. One would presume that Boudreaux, the New Orleans Zephyrs mascot, would be honored to have a relative exploring space.
And Boudreaux and Thibodeaux may be just the beginning. A third dog-like robot is a real possibility.
“Marie might be next,” said Graham. Then the Cajun jokes can really fly.
Copyright 2004 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
Copyright © 2002 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.