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When the job demands ingenuity, NASA engineers whip gadgets worthy of James Bond.

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(Continued from page 2)

The challenge they now face is getting Snakebot to go where they want it to. "Thrashing around will move the snake, but if you want to do anything specific it gets really hard really fast," Neveu says. The answer: software simulation. The team will devise a computerized snake, environment, and control system, then introduce learning schemes and evolvable intelligence. Once the simulated Snakebot learns how to crawl around, they'll transfer the technology to the real snake.

It probably would be easier to just make it creep up somewhere and explode.


Personal Satellite Assistant

This little red ball-the Personal Satellite Assistant-is a cross between the all-knowing computer HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the small floating sphere that shoots tiny laser blasts at Luke Skywalker in Star Wars-although the PSA's designers don't expect their invention to go berserk and fire at astronauts.

What they do expect is that the PSA will help astronauts working aboard the International Space Station. Engineers Yuri Gawdiak and Gregory Dorais are in charge of developing the PSA at the Ames center. There, the PSA prototype is being put through a variety of tests that will lead up to eventual usage aboard the ISS.

Dorais explains that, for starters, the PSA will be able to monitor environmental conditions aboard the station, providing a backup check to the station's sensors. "If they lost pressure or power, or if there was a fire and they didn't know what toxic gases were released and whether or not they should sleep, the PSA would monitor that for them and function independently of the ship's systems," Dorais explains.

The PSA maneuvers with small fans and incorporates stereo cameras and display screens that will help astronauts monitor multiple experiments simultaneously. It can be used to communicate with other astronauts as well as external computer databases.

The next challenge is getting the PSA to understand voice commands and behave independently. "We want to get beyond the current technology to dialogue management, and we're using some pretty high-level autonomy software to control its movements and actions," says Dorais, who hopes the PSA will be ready for service by 2006. "It's quite a bit like science fiction."


Click-less Wrench

Gadgets don't have to do startling things to be clever. This award-winning little wrench is a case in point: Though it appears to be an ordinary hardware store ratchet, it represents a significant leap in mechanical technology. John Vranish, an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, conceived of it to solve a sticky problem astronauts might encounter while assembling hardware in orbit. "We've had 'clickless' ratchets before, but they don't work reliably in space," Vranish says, "because the greases used in these tools often cause slippage and eject gases that can get all over things like optics." And ratchets that do click require so much travel between "clicks" that it's almost impossible to use them in tight spaces.

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