The agency’s CDO reflected on how AI, machine learning and automation are being increasingly operationalized.
NASA’s foresight with emerging technologies played a major part in its accomplishments over the last 18 months, according to the agency’s chief data officer.
“We've landed robotic missions on Mars—actually have flown a helicopter on Mars—and continue to launch at a cadence that is really phenomenal, given the situation we're in right now,” Ron Thompson, who is also NASA’s deputy digital transformation officer, said during a summit hosted by ATARC Tuesday.
And among the technologies that have made waves in NASA’s work, he added that artificial intelligence and machine learning make up “an area that we see a lot of great promise in.”
Earlier this year, the agency’s Perseverance rover traveled 300 million miles across the solar system and landed on Earth’s neighbor. The mission was done autonomously, Thompson said, with help from AI. He called it “a wonderful moment to be witnessed and to be a part of to see … how well that artificial intelligence actually worked on board the spacecraft.” Now, Perseverance “is going about its business,” he explained, collecting samples from Mars to send back for analysis.
That wheeled robotic vehicle made the journey with NASA’s four-pound space helicopter—Ingenuity—strapped to its back. The chopper also recently completed a first-of-its-kind flight in the Martian atmosphere. AI was crucial for that work, as well as for the upcoming Artemis missions that aim to return humans (and among them, the first woman) to the moon.
“We are going through our digital transformation effort,” Thompson explained. “We're about in our third year. The first two years were set in place to do a lot of formulation and a lot of research on exactly what we should be attacking.”
And emerging technologies link directly to several of the “strategic thrusts” identified to revamp the workplace, which the CDO briefly went into.
Thompson also reflected on how NASA is considering nascent technologies in a new light, after the last year when much work shifted to the remote realm. Moving forward, the agency is considering how to operate in a more hybrid world than what came before—and what tools might make it all more seamless.
“We do realize that we won't be totally virtual, and we will not be fully, 100% in person as well. But what does that hybrid mode look like?” Thompson said. “And we're looking at emerging technologies. We're looking at immersive ways of having a rich experience that is not cumbersome, that is highly integrated for our workforce and that obviously adds value to our mission.”