Answer Our Questions
Athena Student Intern
1. What made
you interested in learning about robots?
As a kid I was always fascinated with aircrafts (which are basically
aerial robots), especially autopilots. So I read a lot of literature
on the "Glass Cockpit" concept for both military and civil
planes. The basic idea behind the autopilot was to make machines,
such as aircrafts, smarter so they can fly themselves; or make it
easier for humans to operate them. I was also fascinated by robotic
exploration of space.
When I was younger, I was fascinated by the television
show: The Bionic Woman.
Of all the engineering fields, robotics requires the widest
understanding and application of topics. Therefore, you're always
learning and doing different things.
It started with a strong interest in drawing sketches of
many different things, including robots and machines. Later, I combined
that interest with keen interests in how things worked and, in particular,
how things that moved worked. Once I became aware that one could
control moving machines using computer programming, I wanted to
learn how. I thought that learning how to make robots move under
computer control was the coolest because they could be programmed
to do so many useful things. It is challenging, however, which is
a big part of my motivation.
I have always enjoyed making useful machines and circuits,
and solving broad problems. I did not think I had what it takes
to work with robots but the interesting coursework always led me
in the direction of process control systems, and robotics is a natural
application of that.
2. What courses
did you have to take in high school and college in order to have
a career in robotics?
At high school I read Advance Math, Advance Physics, Advance Chemistry,
and General Studies. I went to Queen Mary College, University of
London and read Avionics Engineering. I also went to graduate school
and received a PhD in Control Systems Engineering at Royal Military
College of Science, Cranfield University in the UK. I was also a
Post-Doctoral Scholar at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh.
Math and physics (in high school) Math, engineering, and computer
science (in college)
English: even the best ideas in robotics are useless if you can't
communicate them to others.
In high school, one just takes what is necessary to graduate and
enter college; some exceptions are electives, if they are offered
at one's high school. If electives are offered, then those that
involve hands-on work and study as well application of math and/or
science should be taken by students interested in robotics. In college,
one should choose to major in disciplines like engineering (mechanical,
electrical, computer), computer science, or physics. Those majors
require one to take many of the necessary or useful math and science
courses. One should also consider graduate school after college
to earn Masters and/or Ph.D. degrees in such areas. Such advanced
degrees will allow one more control over what projects they work
on and increase the opportunities for applying more or their own
creativity. It is also important to study more thatn one of these
disciplines because robotics is a multi-disciplinary field.
I took electronics in high school, then electronic engineering in
University. I can't say which classes were required in that the
thinking skills needed to do this kind of work well are also developed
in courses like literature and history (properly taught). Credentials
alone won't take you very far.
3. What types
of things do you get to do, being a roboticist?
My current job entails driving Spirit rover on Mars. My job title
is Rover Planner or Rover Driver. In this role I am one of the rover
drivers for the Spirit rover on Mars. Responsible for planning all
driving and arm operations and interact with the scientists to evaluate
possible science targets and reachability. Earlier in mission (that
is Mars Exploration Rover Mission) I was a Mobility/IDD Subsystem
(Both Spirit and Opportunity) Engineer,responsible for monitoring
the health, safety, and performance of the Mobility/Instrument Deployment
Device (IDD) component of the MER-A and MER-B rovers. I also conduct
robotics research. My current research at JPL focuses on Planetary
Rovers, Multiple Mobile Robots (Planetary Outpost), Reconfigurable
Robots and Man-machine Interaction.
Program robots to have intelligent behavior.
Test robot capability in simulated Martian environments.
Think-outside-the-box to develop, build, and test new innovations.
Everything from mechanical hardware design (my degrees
are in mechanical engineering) to software coding to thought experiments
on how future robots will do their jobs.
As a Senior Robotics Engineer, I perform research and technology
development towards creating new capabilities for robot systems
to be used for space exploration. This includes developing software
that enables robots to navigate and perform useful functions on
their own using sensors and computers. In addition, I lead teams
of different types of engineers (mechanical, computer, electrical,
etc) who perform testing and operations projects that focus on autonomous
robot systems. Finally, I get to help operate robotic systems (such
as the MER rovers) to perform missions in space. I get many opportunities
to apply my ideas to help solve new problems and then watch solutions
develop on sophisticated, but fun, robotic systems that may one
day operate in space or on other planets.
I participate in project design teams, design electronic circuits
and systems, build, test, operate and maintain robots.
4. How many
years of schooling (besides K-12) did you take in order to land
a job as a NASA roboticist?
A total of 6 years, 3 years of undergraduate studies and 3 years
of Ph.D studies.
10 years (after high-school) which includes 4 for undergraduate,
1 1/2 for masters, and 4 1/2 for Ph.D.
I had 5 years of college (which was supposed to be 4 years) studying
mechanical engineering, which led to a Bachelor's degree. That can
be sufficient for an entry-level position as a NASA robticist. I
then had over 2 years of graduate school studying mechanical engineering
with a focus on robotics, which led to a Masters degree. That prepared
me to work as a robotics researcher at NASA. I was hired by NASA
JPL once I graduated with my Masters degree. I later completed a
Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering with a focus on mobile robot
control systems and navigation. That better prepared me to perform
independent research at NASA based on my own ideas and lead teams
of engineers in making new ideas become reality.
For several years prior to this job, I worked as a technician and
an engineer. I actually got this job three years before graduating
with my BSEE. Experience and developing the right thinking skills
landed me here, and I added the formaleducation to get better engineering
5. Was this
your first robotics job after schooling? If not, what made you transfer
Actually, I worked at The Institute for Complex Engineered Systems,
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), in Pittsburgh after I completed
my Ph.D. At CMU I helped develop a system of All Terrain Vehicles
(ATVs) for distributed tactical surveillance for DARPA. NASA was
interested in applying some of the work I had done at CMU to planetary
outpost missions, which I thought was exciting so I applied for
a job at NASA-JPL.
This was my first job.
Yes. When I completed my Master's degree, NASA JPL was a world leader
in the robotics field. NASA also tackles some of the most exciting
and challenging problems. I wanted to work on challenging robotics
problems and apply artificial intelligence and autonomous control
techniques to solve such problems. NASA JPL was a natural choice
This is my first robotics job, but I have been at JPL since
1980. I left for school in 1992 because I was needed the education
to be a better engineer.
6. What is
your working environment like? (Do you work in a cubicle, outside,
I do have an office but I actually spend most of my time in the
robotics lab or flight testbed or in the field either developing
new robotics technologies or testing technologies. The brilliant
thing about my job is that, it is not a circumscribed routine, there
are different challenges everyday. Believe me it is a lot of fun.
NASA is also a great organization that cares about is people and
their personal development, need I say more.
Work in three environments - my office, lab, and in outside
terrain (Mars Yard). Which environment I work in depends on whether
I'm programming, testing, or demoing the research.
Depending on the day, I'm either in my office working on
the computer, in the assembly lab putting together a new robot,
in our test lab running a robot in our "sand box", or
in the field (usually the Mojave Desert) testing a robot in even
more realistic environment.
I spend time in robotics laboratories around computers and robots
trying out new ideas for improving the way they work or what they
can do. Some of those labs have indoor sandboxes with rocks and
soil in which I test how mobile robots (rovers) perform. Sometimes
I perform the same work outdoors in desert locations that have terrain
similar to that on Mars or whatever the potential destination of
our robots may be. These days, I'm helping to guide the Mars Exploration
Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, as they explore on the martian surface.
For this job, I work in "mission control" rooms filled
with computers and large screens. As for office space, engineers
may work in cubicles, offices with closed doors, or wide open areas.
It all depends on what facilities are available in the workplace.
I happen to have an office with a closed door and a cubicle for
my MER job which is close to the mission control area.
My desk is in a cubicle with a window (I prefer the window
to a closed office) and work in several labs where my robots are
built and operated. The labs range from a small room to build electronic
circuits to large rooms operating them, an outdoor yard, and long
trips to the desert for major tests.
7. Do you
have any suggestions for younger kids, in grade school, who are
interested in science and robotics?
Hard work always pays off. You need to take Math and Science very
seriously and most importantly English, because there is no point
in being smart if you cannot communicate your ideas. It is all
about teamwork. Also you need to remember that robotics is an experimental
science so you need a great deal of patience.
Find hands-on activities that get you excited - such as robot competitions
and robotic kits (e.g. Mindstorm).
While it's never too early to start experimenting with
science and robotics (LEGO Mindstorms kits are great), read and
learn as much as possible about the human world. Building robots
or advancing science is not sufficient in itself; it must be done
in the context of humanity's needs. Therefore you need to understand
as much as possible about humans as well as robots.
If you're interested in having similar fun...I mean doing
similar "work", be sure to study math and science hard.
If it doesn't come to you easily find help and continue to work
at it. To be a robotics engineer, it is necessary to understand
high levels of math and science as well as how computers and machines
work. If math and science are not fun by themselves, you can surely
find enough fun and challenges to suit your needs by applying them
to robots. The college and university degrees in major disciplines
I mentioned above will provide a necessary background. Finally,
tinkering with computers, robots, video games, etcetera is also
a good use of time since you never really stop doing similar things
in a career as a robotics engineer.
Yes. Think physics. Where you have a choice, look for good
teachers in the humanities who can help you develop your thinking
skills. They are hard to find, but usually they are the tougher
teachers, and they are always the ones who give lots and lots of
writing assignments. (Sorry, there just is no easier way.) I wish
someone had told me this: in your math and science classes it is
not the grade that matters, you need to learn everything in each
class because it all fits together later. An A is not good enough
if you have not learned enough, and you don't need the A if you
8. Do you get to do any job-related traveling? If
so, where do you go, and what do you do?
As a robotics researcher I get to publish technical papers
in conferences all around the USA and the world. Also, since robotics
is an experimental science we conduct a lot of field test, so one
gets to travel to unique geological sites around the USA.
Yes. Travel to present work at conferences. Where I go
depends on the location of the conference - from Alaska to Canada
to Washington D.C. Every year it's usually someplace different.
My main travel opportunities have been for the field trials of robots
throughout the deserts of the South Western United States.
Yes. I travel often to professional technical conferences where
I give presentations about my work and also learn about what many
other engineers, scientists and researchers are doing. Most conferences
I attend are related to robotics and automatic control systems in
the United States, and on occastion I attend conferencee in other
countries. I also travel to universities for meetings with professors
and their students with whom I collaborate on robotics research
projects. I travel to universities, high schools, and middle schools
to give presentations about my work and career as well.
Traveling not common with engineers, but is part of my job. I have
traveled for weeks at a time for field tests of robots. I have been
sent to Disney World a couple of times, and to high school robotics
competitions around the country.
NOTE: All of these engineers
work for the Jet