NASA is conducting research from their Ames Research Center in California with a robot called “K10″, located in northern Arizona, to simulate tele-operations for exploring the moon. They are using Google Earth extensively for both planning, visualization, and operations. In other words, Google Earth is a visualization tool for telepresence. NASA uses a black and white higher res image of their target area overlayed in GE (maybe the black and white makes it look more like the moon?). They look at the imagery to determine reconnaissance objectives and plan routes. They have developed a planning tool that works interactively with Google Earth (using network links and overlays) to develop and assign tasks for the robot and put placemarks and routes on the map. Then the task plans are sent to the robot. The robot sends back photos to NASA which are also placed in placemarks in Google Earth, and a track of the robots path is also updated continously. You can read more details and see more screenshots at the Robotic Recon web site. I’d like to get my hands on a sample KML file to see what it looks like. There is a large team of engineers involved in the Robotic Recon project, including folks from different NASA centers and several universities. And, the Robotic Recon blog shows lots of screenshots of Google Earth in use.
By the way, this story is particularly interesting to me because more than 15 years ago I developed similar tele-presence simulation software at NASA Johnson Space Center to visualize remote-operations over the Internet using a Silicon Graphics workstations. I developed the 3D software for the visualization parts, and the Internet client/server communications. In 1992, while at International Space University in Japan, I used a workstation to control a robot arm NASA had back in Houston over an Internet connection using a crude frame-grab camera (single-frame webcam) to verify position. This is so déjà vu! Part of the reason I was instantly attracted to Google Earth when it first came out, was its similarity to the software I had written. Full circle.