People poses for a photo after a presentation to NASA

U-M student group CLAWS develops tools to help astronauts navigate space

The University of Michigan Collaborative Lab for Advancing Work in Space participated in the NASA SUITS Challenge at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. They developed an augmented reality system to help astronauts navigate the moon.

University of Michigan CLAWS AR System Demo

The University of Michigan Collaborative Lab for Advancing Work in Space (CLAWS), a multidisciplinary student group that designs and develops innovative applications for human space exploration, participated in the NASA SUITS Challenge this May at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The focus of this challenge was to develop an augmented reality (AR) system to help astronauts navigate the moon in the upcoming Artemis missions.

Leia Stirling, University of Michigan Industrial and Operations Engineering (U-M IOE) associate professor, has acted as the faculty advisor for CLAWS for the past three years.

“On Earth, many of us use Google maps to help us get from one place to another,” said Stirling. “That capability doesn’t exist on the moon. These student teams are creating ways for astronauts to have navigational aids so they can always get back to their base and explore new locations without getting lost.”

During the challenge, CLAWS pitched their AR system to a panel that included NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins. The system they created featured navigation, search and rescue support and an AI voice assistant named VEGA. Watch their full pitch here.

“I really liked your video because it showed me exactly from the user point of view what you were doing through a couple of different tasks, and it really gave me the sense of how someone would interact with your device,” said Rubins during the pitch.

Kate Rubins speaks in a microphone to the presenting team
SUITS teams presenting their exit pitches to a panel of NASA engineers and astronaut Kate Rubins. Photographer: James Blair

Chris Hansen, manager of the Extravehicular Activity Office at NASA, was also a part of the panel.

“One of the features that I really liked is your navigation aids that are always pointing home,” said Hansen. “The moon is pretty featureless, so if you’ve done much scuba diving it’s really easy to lose situational awareness. It’s kind of nice to have a simple feature that’s pointing back. It was subtle and it was really nice.”

CLAWS consists of undergraduate and graduate students from the U-M College of Engineering (CoE), College of Literature Science and Arts (LSA) and the School of Information (UMSI). The lead user experience (UX) designer for this project is Hope Mao, a recent graduate from UMSI. Hope worked closely with the lead augmented reality (AR) designer, Patrick Halim, an undergraduate in LSA.

“It was incredible to realize just how much relevance and impact our designs have in the space community when thinking about the technology that will guide astronauts in future missions,” said Mao.

Collaborative Lab for Advancing Work in Space members presenting at NASA
U-M CLAWS members with faculty advisor, Leia Stirling

After hearing from all 10 teams, NASA evaluates the concepts and systems that were pitched and then utilizes the most innovative pieces in their own research and development. Students also have the opportunity to network with NASA professionals and students from other universities.

“It was really rewarding to have our application tested by workers at NASA, who have a lot of experience thinking about the ways each small design choice could affect an astronaut’s user experience,” said Halim.

Past projects have included an AR system to assist astronauts on the International Space Station, an AR toolkit for surface exploration and a voice assistant to make information more easily accessible. CLAWS is focused on creating human-centered, software-driven applications to advance humanity’s presence in space.

If you are interested in joining or getting involved with CLAWS email [email protected].