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Roboticists Answer Our Questions
by Ashley, former Athena Student Intern

1. What made you interested in learning about robots?

Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu: 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.

Ayanna Howard: When I was younger, I was fascinated by the television show: The Bionic Woman.

Brett Kennedy: Of all the engineering fields, robotics requires the widest understanding and application of topics. Therefore, you're always learning and doing different things.

Eddie Tunstel: 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.

Mike Garrett: 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?

Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu: 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.

Ayanna Howard: Math and physics (in high school) Math, engineering, and computer science (in college)

Brett Kennedy: English: even the best ideas in robotics are useless if you can't communicate them to others.

Eddie Tunstel: 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.

Mike Garrett: 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?

Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu: 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.

Ayanna Howard: Program robots to have intelligent behavior.
Test robot capability in simulated Martian environments.
Think-outside-the-box to develop, build, and test new innovations.

Brett Kennedy: 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.

Edward Tunstel: 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.

Mike Garrett: 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?

Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu: A total of 6 years, 3 years of undergraduate studies and 3 years of Ph.D studies.

Ayanna Howard: 10 years (after high-school) which includes 4 for undergraduate, 1 1/2 for masters, and 4 1/2 for Ph.D.

Brett Kennedy: 5 years.

Edward Tunstel: 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.

Mike Garrett: 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 skills.

5. Was this your first robotics job after schooling? If not, what made you transfer to NASA?

Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu: 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.

Ayanna Howard: Yes.

Brett Kennedy: This was my first job.

Edward Tunstel: 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 for me.

Mike Garrett: 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, etc?)

Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu: 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.

Ayanna Howard: 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.

Brett Kennedy: 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.

Edward Tunstel: 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.

Mike Garrett: 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?

Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu: 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.

Ayanna Howard: Find hands-on activities that get you excited - such as robot competitions and robotic kits (e.g. Mindstorm).

Brett Kennedy: 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.

Edward Tunstel: 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.

Mike Garrett: 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 have.

8. Do you get to do any job-related traveling? If so, where do you go, and what do you do?

Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu: 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.

Ayanna Howard: 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.

Brett Kennedy: My main travel opportunities have been for the field trials of robots throughout the deserts of the South Western United States.

Edward Tunstel: 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.

Mike Garrett: 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 Propulsion Laboratory

FirstGov NASA
Curator: Drew Price
NASA Official: Lucien Junkin
Last Updated: April 28, 2020
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