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Guest: Dr. Panagiotis (Panos) Tsiotras; Topics: Advanced AI and robotics for all spaceflight, autonomous vehicles, software vs. hardware issues, safety, regulatory issues, competition, TRL for widescale deployment.
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We welcomed Dr. Panagiotis (Panos) Tsiotras to the program for a one segment 61 minute discussion on autonomous vehicles, safety, human and robotic spaceflight and more. Please check out the work of his university lab, the Dynamics and control systems Laboratory at Georgia Tech School of Aerospace Engineering. The lab home page is http://dcsl.gatech.edu/.
We started our discussion with our guest talking about autonomous vehicle risk to the public plus questioning if the industry will be disruptive in killing jobs and employment in the aerospace industry. He did not think there was added risk to the public nor did he think there would be job displacement within the aerospace industry. Listen to all of what he said during this part of our conversation. Let us know your thoughts on these issues by posting them on our blog.
For approximately the first half of our program, we talked about self-driving cars and trucks, pilotless aircraft and the same for human spaceflight capsules. Our guest talked about the software as well as the hardware which had to be considerably more reliable than what we may be used to working with on a routine basis. His focus on human safety was a top priority so be sure to listen to how the industry works to assure high levels of human safety with reliable hardware, software and multiple paths of redundancy. By the way, I asked our guest several times if he would be comfortable using autonomous vehicles on the ground, in the air and in space. He gave the same reply each time I asked. Listen to his responses but I bet you can guess what he said each time I asked him about his comfort level in an autonomous vehicle of any type.
We specifically talked about the extreme and unique environment of space. I asked about ground analog testing environments because simulating space characteristics is not easy to do nor is it that reliable. As it turns out, there is a pretty good terrestrial analog for space. Deep sea oil and other operations under deep waters take place in an extreme environment. We talked about this medium as a good analog for space systems development. Off and on during our program Panos suggested why underwater was a good analog but he also talked about reasons it was not so great. One such reason was the delay in space communications which does not happen with underwater work. That said, both the underwater and space environments are harsh and useful for R&D technology. The two environments benefit one another for R&D matters.
Panos defined two types of space environments requiring different types of autonomous systems. Listen to what he said about orbiting vehicles around distant planets. An example was the communication delay as more autonomy is needed for planets and rovers the greater distance from Earth. For human spacecraft and missions, the needs are significantly different. Once again, don't miss this discussion.
Listeners sent in multiple email questions. One question dealt with developing a self-driving car as compared to airplane or spacecraft. Don't miss what he said about these vehicles, their characteristics and which was the easiest to develop. Hint: Cars are harder, even than an 18 wheeler cruising the highways. Panos was also asked if the different car companies testing their systems used different hardware and software or was it all produced by one or two companies. He said much of it was proprietary but that the same ideas, constraints, parameters and such, especially with reliability and safety, were used by all systems. He was unable to address any specific self-driving car system being tested today. He did say that planes and spacecraft fly in lots of empty space without as many variables as compared to a car driving in a city. A listener then asked if an advanced jet autopilot artificial horizon system such as in use with the newest jets and military planes was nearly the same as the systems being used for autonomous spaceflight. You might be surprised by the answer Panos offered so don't miss it. More was said about autonomous spaceflight including Panos getting questions about suborbital flight, in particular the Blue Origins model which is autonomous as Virgin Galactic uses pilots.
As we were getting close to the end of our discussion, listener Paul asked about advanced AI for habitat or space settlement construction, perhaps on the lunar surface. Our guest had much to say in his response which included commenting on zero g, 3D printing and more. The bottom line was that we were not yet at a TRL for prime time operation but we were approaching that point. Also, the best way to get there was to do it. Then he was asked about using space manufacturing equipment in very low or no gravity and how the equipment compensated for the absence of 1g. Panos told us about the research in this area and some of the solutions being investigated but so far it was still a challenge as it can't be simulated on Earth and we are not in space yet to test any of the ideas. Remember, there is still no way to test space here on Earth.
Before ending, listener Bob as if the ordinary citizen wanting to be a space settlor would be able to operate, work, maintain and control the type of equipment that would be robotic and based on advanced AI for space. For sure don't miss what our guest had to say on this topic. Again, he stressed safety but also mature technology would be more like advanced tech we have today. He cited a new car as an example. We can work the machine just fine but more than likely we would need a repair specialist to fix a problem or something broken. What do you think? Post your ideas on our blog. In summarizing the discussion, Panos talked about probable government and lab regulations and stressed that the technology was here to stay and would impact us all going forward. His final overview of the industry was excellent so don't miss it.
Please post your comments/questions for our guest on TSS blog for this show. You can reach Panos through me or through his lab website or Georgia Tech faculty page.