Open Source Ingenuity

Doghouse – NASA

Article from Issue 246/2021

Watching the Mars rover, maddog is delighted to observe that the small helicopter it carries named Ingenuity has many off-the-shelf components and runs under Linux using free and open source software.

In the middle of the night a friend sent me a message about NASA designing a heavier-than-air drone named Ingenuity to fly on the planet Mars. Even though I had finished my article for this month I knew I had to scrap it and write about Ingenuity, built mostly with off-the-shelf components and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) which has several real-world (and even Mars-world) ramifications.

The Mars rovers are machines that "have to work." The cost of designing them, launching them, and managing them is tremendous. Not working after all of that expense and time is something that needs to be avoided at all costs.

Plus the operating environment on Mars is so unlike anything on Earth that extra care has to be taken with every component. The air is very thin, only 1/100 of the density of the Earth. The gravity is only 63 percent of the Earth, and the sunlight (needed to charge the solar panels) is much weaker due to the greater distance from the Sun. Not the least of the issues are dust storms and shadows of overhanging rocks that could block the light to the solar panels and keep them from charging.

Operating temperatures of the computer components need to be from -40 Celsius to +40 Celsius, and the electronics have to be shielded from the radiation that we on Earth are protected from by our atmosphere.

One-way communications take 11 minutes, so feedback from any command given is 22 minutes. Even though the Mars rover moves slowly, you still want to program it to move to where you want it to be rather than give "driving" commands.

All of this has to be designed and tested very carefully and under conditions duplicated as closely as possible on Earth. Therefore the design and test cycles are very long.

One of the previous rovers, Opportunity, was launched on July 7, 2003, and landed on January 25, 2004. It continued to do work until June 10, 2018. Of course the design, manufacturing, and testing had to be done many years before its launch.

The processor chosen for Opportunity was a RAD6000, a PowerPC RISC processor that was made for very difficult environments and ran at various frequencies of 2.5, 5, 10, and 20MHZ. It also used about 40 Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) to do the heavy duty processing for things like image recognition and image compression, since the FPGAs could be turned on, do the processing, and be turned off to save power.

The newest Mars rover, Perseverance, was built along the lines of an earlier, successful rover named Curiosity (which is still active), both of which run VxWorks, which NASA has been working with for a long time.

Perseverance landed on February 18, 2021. However, this newest Mars rover held a surprise strapped to its "belly," the small helicopter named Ingenuity.

Ingenuity is considered by NASA to be a "technology demonstration." Even if the "technology demonstration" fails completely, the main aim of the mission, Perseverance, is unaffected.

Ingenuity was "icing on the cake" (or as a friend of mine put it, "lattice crust on the Pi") because the Ingenuity was built using a lot of off-the-shelf parts that used free and open source software. This dramatically shortened the amount of time it took to design, assemble, and test the system, and also reduced the cost of the final technology.

The main processor board for the Ingenuity CPU could easily be used in a cell phone or a platform like a Raspberry Pi 3. It uses a Qualcomm 801 Snapdragon processor, very low power, but with a GPU and Digital Signal Processors (DSPs). As such, it has more processing power than the processors used on the much larger rover. Many of the other parts for the helicopter were ordered from SparkFun electronics.

It runs an Open-Source Flight Software Framework called "F' (F Prime)" which runs on a Raspberry Pi 3 under Linux. You could (with some work and study) conceivably build your own "Ingenuity" and develop it along with NASA.

This is not the first time that NASA has created open source software. NASA was doing it even before the term "open source" was coined through a NASA program called COSMIC, which released many software projects to the public.

One of my favorite programs at the time (1985) was CLIPS [2], a language that is used for writing embedded expert systems. That software has now been spun out of NASA, but it is still being maintained over 25 years later. In the age of AI, sometimes it is interesting to look at the much easier and more flexible concept of "expert systems" to do our work. I may write more about my relationship with CLIPS sometime soon.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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