Ever wondered what it would be like to tow a prototype space robot into the icy wilderness of Alaska? It’s just one of the job highlights for Australian engineer Will Reid, who works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), writing the code that lets robots roll over challenging terrain.
Saturn is a cruisy 1.2 billion km, but getting there is just half the job. Once there, a robot must be able to autonomously move over icy terrain (Saturn’s moon Europa and Jupiter’s moon Enceladus are known to have a thin icy crust above super-chilled liquid ‘oceans’). Any mistake could cost the mission.
“My role is a robotic mobility engineer, and I write software and algorithms to enable robots to make decisions by themselves and traverse these really rough, gnarly terrains, and get from point A to point B,” says Will.
“I’ve always wanted to work for NASA in the space industry, be part of the exploration of our solar system and try to answer a lot of the questions that we still don’t have answers for. Is there life off Earth? What are these other neighboring planets?”
Be a space roboticist and work for NASA
It’s a dream career, so how did Will get to NASA?
“I was never the top student in maths or science at school. I always tried to work really hard, but I think the most important thing is having a passion for something. I’ve always been really passionate about space exploration and the role robotics can play in space exploration.
“When I was a kid, human space exploration was going, sending astronauts to the MIR Space Station, and the International Space Station. That really excited me and my parents took me to Kennedy Space Center when I was I about 11, which really opened my eyes to what was possible with the exploration of space,” says Will.
You don’t need to be good at coding and maths – but you need to persevere
“I didn’t do computer science in high school. The most challenging step when I got to university was learning how to program,” he says.
Physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, is also really important. “I remember asking myself multiple times during high school, “Why do I need to know calculus? I don’t see any application for this”. I use it everyday now.”
A day as a NASA roboticist
Will’s average day is super varied.
“A typical day for me would be writing or debugging a bit of software, which I’ve written say a couple days before which has got lots of bugs in it.
“Then I’ll load the new software onto the robot, and test it out. I’ll set up a mini test in either the sandpit outside of our lab, or inside the lab itself, and just do a unit test, or an isolated test, evaluating if this new feature is working.”
Work can also involve going to some gnarly places to test the robot.
“Probably the most memorable day I’ve had at JPL was in Alaska, when we took the robot to Matanuska Glacier, two hours outside of Anchorage, and we helicoptered in the robot, we had it on the long line, and it deposited on the ice.
“We’ve also gone out to sites like Death Valley in California or a glacier in Alaska, which represent this type of terrain that you could possibly see on the surface of Europa.”
In the early 2000’s the unmanned spacecraft Cassini flew through geysers spewing from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
“It discovered that water was the main component in these geysers, and the source of this water was pristine and warm – all ingredients for possible evolution of life,” says Will.
“That’s tremendously exciting. My role is participating in research which is looking at, “All right, if we wanted to send a robot to the surface of Enceladus or the surface of Europa, and we wanted to do in situ science – sampling or taking measurements of the material directly on the surface – how would we get around? How would we go from site to site?”
Will’s path to NASA robotics mobility engineer
>> Bachelor of Mechatronics Engineering/ Bachelor of Computer Science, University of Melbourne
>> Student exchange program, Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, in Sweden
>> PhD at the University of Sydney, the Australian Centre for Field Robotics
Author: Heather Catchpole
Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs