Draper Software Could Warn Astronauts of Performance Issues

NSBRI metrics and methods simulator. (Credit: Draper Laboratory)
NSBRI metrics and methods simulator. (Credit: Draper Laboratory)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Draper Laboratory PR) – Many automobiles today alert the driver if they are drifting from one lane into another, or if they are nearing a potential collision with another vehicle. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have few of these types of alerts as they manually capture spacecraft docking to deliver supplies or crew, as was the case when the Japanese HTV arrived on Aug. 23. They even lack many of the cues that automobile drivers experience as they pull into a parking space, such as feeling the resistance of the curb, or the lines on a dashboard camera.

Draper, working under contract to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), will develop software that provides astronauts with helpful alerts in real time. By monitoring the way human operators interact with space systems, the alert software could also recognize when an astronaut is overwhelmed and suggest offloading certain tasks to other personnel or suggest re-allocating tasks between the human and the computer.

The company is developing the methods and metrics needed to monitor performance in real time, as well as vehicle modeling for simulators that test the software at the University of California, Davis, with scenarios including docking NASA’s Orion spacecraft with the ISS, landing a spacecraft on a planetary surface like the Moon or Mars, and an astronaut conducting spacewalks around the ISS.

Draper is also partnered with Johnson Space Center to evaluate these metrics in response to novel scenarios in its Virtual Reality Laboratory.

“In many cases, the best way to do something in space is to combine automated systems with human supervisory input. This can work best if the astronaut has some feedback on how well the operation is going,” said Stephen Robinson, a UC Davis professor and former NASA astronaut who flew on four space shuttle missions. Feedback would also be helpful during processes such as docking with the ISS or operating a robotic arm, where an astronaut may need to exercise manual control over long periods, he said.

Robinson is collaborating with Draper to ensure that the alerts are presented to astronauts in a useful way. ”For the astronauts to trust the alerts, they must be timely and accurate,” said Kevin Duda, Draper’s principal investigator for the Methods and Metrics for Real-Time Task Performance Assessment project. Draper also wants to ensure that the alerts, which could include both audio and visual cues, are not condescending or otherwise irritating.

Draper’s goal is to enable systems on spacecraft like Orion to provide these alerts without adding extra hardware, or strapping sensors on the astronauts.

The same type of alerts that provide guidance to an astronaut operating a robotic arm in space could also benefit doctors using robotic surgical tools on Earth, Robinson said. Alerts that prompt a human operator to take control over a spacecraft could be applied to self-driving cars to let the occupants know that there is a problem with the vehicle and it’s time for them to take the wheel, Duda said.