Solving Out of This World Challenges with NASA FDL

Nagib Hakim

For most people, “outside the box” doesn’t mean “out of this world”. However, NASA and Intel data scientists are using out-of-the-box thinking to jointly tackle extraterrestrial problems. Space exploration requires new ways of thinking; even simple tasks can present a dizzying array of challenges. That’s why NASA developed their Frontier Development Lab (FDL), an AI R&D accelerator that tackles knowledge gaps useful to the space program. Intel has been a key supporter of the FDL, providing both access to technology and mentorship from our AI researchers.

The scope of AI applications in space is staggering. Each year the FDL focuses on a handful of topics for researchers to consider: space resources, space weather, solar storms, 3D space object modeling, long period comets, solar storms, etc. These areas are important to consider, not only to enable space exploration, but also to understand the impact of space events on our planet. For years, NASA has been collecting and analyzing large amounts of data from space. The advent and maturity of AI opens the door to another level of understanding—and entirely new possibilities.

One example is the availability of lunar resources, whether it be water, methane, or rare metals. These resources are critical to sustain a permanent human presence on the moon. However, the problems in harvesting them are enormous. They range from logistical aspects like equipment transportation and control, to mining in reduced gravity, computer vision, rover exploration planning, rock sample analysis, and finding promising locations. These tasks have to be executed with almost complete autonomy, high resiliency, and in very harsh and constrained conditions.

Intel technologies are ideally suited to support these types of initiatives. Our processors enable a range of use cases, from low power devices to field-programmable hardware to datacenter platforms back on Earth used for model training and data mining. In addition, Intel is no stranger to developing components with built-in Reliability, Availability, and Serviceability (RAS) features. Similarly, our AI research efforts cover the entire spectrum of industries and address many of the needs outlined above. In fact, any AI project we undertake can find a useful application in space exploration.

It’s a thrilling challenge to extend the work we’re doing every day to a space mission, where no error is permitted and the task is exponentially complicated by an unforgiving environment. This is my second year mentoring the FDL program, along with a few of my Intel colleagues. The task has been as inspiring as it seems daunting. Each summer, the FDL accepts new researchers for their 8 week long lab program. You can learn more about this interdisciplinary approach to solving space exploration challenges in a recent Fast Company article. The participating researchers always amaze me with their creativity and passion for solving problems. Some have remained deeply engaged long after their research projects have ended and participate alongside Intel in industry panels and discussions. These scientists are undoubtedly shaping space research and AI through their innovations. As for me, I feel privileged to witness these developments from the trench lines and am proud to be part of the team that takes Intel Outside.

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