Perseverance Rover Conducts Its First AutoNav Drive

Since the Perseverance rover landed on Mars, it has been driven around the planet's surface by a driver working on earth. The drivers, such as the one pictured in the image below, wear special 3D glasses to allow them to see obstacles rover needs to avoid better as the rover cruises across the surface of the Red Planet. However, NASA designed Perseverance to be more autonomous than past rovers.

The Perseverance rover has an integrated auto-navigation system called AutoNav. The system makes 3D maps of the terrain ahead, identifying hazards and planning a route around any obstacles without requiring data from controllers on Earth. Senior engineer, rover planner, and driver for NASA Vandi Verma (seen in the image below) says that the rover has a capability called "thinking while driving," meaning the rover is thinking about the autonomous drive while its wheels are turning.

That capability and other improvements could enable Perseverance to reach a top speed of 393 feet per hour. Perseverance isn't the first NASA rover to be equipped with AutoNav. Curiosity uses an older version of the feature and can only reach a speed of about 66 feet per hour. The higher speed represents an improvement of four or five times for Perseverance. The higher speed allows the rover to travel further, helping to improve the pace of science operations.

Improved navigation capabilities also allow Perseverance to go through more complex terrain rather than going around it, which NASA has been unable to do before. Going over more complex terrain will open able the rover to make more discoveries in less time. However, NASA is clear that Perseverance can't operate with AutoNav alone and will always require a rover team on earth.

The radio signal delay between Earth and Mars prevents human operators from controlling the rover in real-time. Instead, the team uses special glasses at times to study satellite images of the surface of Mars in the vicinity of the rover. Those investigations help plot the course, which is later sent to the rover to execute.