NASA's Perseverance rover can drive autonomously on the red planet.
The rover's enhanced AutoNav technology lets it take charge of its adventures.
Perseverance is "thinking while driving" as its wheels are turning, NASA said.
According to the agency, the technology lets Perseverance take control of its wheels and drive by itself across the red planet, without the need to heavily rely on commands from Earth.
According to NASA, AutoNav is equipped with more powerful features than its predecessor, Curiosity. These include the ability to make 3D maps of the terrain ahead, identify hazards, and plan routes around obstacles. This means Perseverance will be able to drive more direct routes and travel at much faster speeds.
"We have a capability called 'thinking while driving,'" said Vandi Verma, a senior engineer, rover planner, and driver at NASA's Jet Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. "The rover is thinking about the autonomous drive while its wheels are turning."
The agency reported that Perseverance might be able to hit top speeds of 393 feet (120 meters) per hour. This is approximately six times faster than Curiosity, which was able to reach 66 feet per hour.
"We sped up AutoNav by four or five times," said Michael McHenry, the mobility domain lead and part of JPL's team of rover planners. "We're driving a lot farther in a lot less time than Curiosity demonstrated."
AutoNav will be a key feature in allowing the six-wheeled robot to complete its science campaign on the floor of Jezero Crater. This involves scanning and drilling Martian soil for signs of ancient microscopic life.
"Now we are able to drive through these more complex terrains instead of going around them: It's not something we've been able to do before," said Jennifer Trosper, Mars 2020 Perseverance rover's project manager.
The AutoNav system doesn't eliminate the need for human drivers entirely, it just increases the rover's autonomy where it can.
Team members said they look forward to letting AutoNav "take the wheel." But they'll also be prepared to intervene when the situation calls for it.
Using technologies like this, NASA eventually aims to fly humans to Mars and establish a settlement there.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Perseverance had driven autonomously for the first time. The rover is instead using the AutoNav technology more frequently.
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