As Division Chief of the Software, Robotics & Simulation Division at the Johnson Space Center, his projects will travel to the International Space Station, in commercial space capsules and may even support The Gateway for Human Space Exploration. And he is a part of the Houston Innovation Ecosystem.
Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV, the show that champions Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs. Brought to you by PKF Texas, the CPAs and advisors that have been featuring Houston innovators for over 15 years. Our topic today, Robotics, coming to you from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. And I’m very pleased to have as my guest Dr. Robert Ambrose, Division Chief of the Software, Robotics and Simulation division here at the Johnson Space Center. Rob, welcome to HXTV.
Rob: Thanks Russ, welcome to JSC.
Russ: Thank you, you bet. So tell us what is this thing we’re sitting in?
Rob: Well right now we’re in the cabin of the space exploration vehicle. It’s a technology prototype for different kinds of machines we might send into the lunar orbit and around the lunar surface on wheels and in other Earth configurations. The cabin is designed for 2 people to live for 2 weeks. We can put it on either wheels for surface ops or we can put in on a flying propulsion sled for flying it around in space.
Russ: Wow, very impressive. And this vehicle has not been used yet in space, correct?
Rob: No, this is a sign of things to come.
Rob: We’re really getting focused on lunar exploration and being able to use a cabin like this in and around the lunar orbit and then down to the surface would be a really good cost savings for us; we’ll use the same design twice.
Russ: Okay, is the actual one? Will it go to space? Or this is more like a prototype?
Rob: Maybe the granddaughter of this one is going to make it into space.
Russ: Okay. So I’m curious, I’ve already told our audience, we’re here to talk about robotics, what does that have to do with this vehicle?
Rob: Well, someday you’re going to be cruising down the highway and you’re going to get a little tired of driving or maybe you need to do some work or something and you’re going to shift your car into a driverless mode.
Rob: You might still just think of it as your car, but really that’s now a robot, and that’s how these spacecraft are. They’re robotically operated. We can drive them from Houston even though they’re in space or you can hop into them and drive them on board. But really they’re robotic systems.
Russ: How long have you been sort of in charge of robotics out here?
Rob: Well I’ve been here since 2000 and I’ve been leading this division since around 2010.
Russ: Did you ever envision that it would include vehicles like this?
Rob: Absolutely and all sorts of other great things are in our future. It’s a privilege to work here at NASA, all of these smart people, and they’re attracted to NASA because of kind of a noble effort to go help America and help humanity. It’s a great place to work and it’s a privilege to be here every day.
Russ: We’ve already talked about robots and this software and simulation that are all in your sort of category, but tell us what do you do? What is your job? What’s a regular day?
Rob: The main job is riding herd on a bunch of just amazing projects. At any given time we might have 100 different projects in my division for all sorts of different customers. The bulk of our work is for Space Station right now, but we have a lot going on for the new Orion capsule and the SpaceX and Boeing capsules. And then working towards a new system that we call the Gateway, which is humanity’s next step going into orbit around the moon. We have a collection of projects building products and providing services to make all those missions possible.
Russ: Wow. Probably the last year or so since I got this cool job that I like at HX I’ve come out here several times and the first time I was really surprised with the amount of activity. I just assumed with the privatization – the SpaceX, the Boeing thing – that everything would not be very active, but it’s extremely active. There’s a lot going on out here.
Rob: I have to tell you – now I’m a little biased because I work on payloads, robotics systems and things to work with astronauts, and those fit nicely onto commercial rides into space and commercial rides to the lunar surface someday. So it really allows us to work with the commercial partners and keep NASA focused on things where there’s not really a commercial market yet, but then work with a commercial industry where they’re ready.
Russ: Okay, now I’ve seen some interesting, probably robotic vehicles around just walking around out here before we started this. Describe some of them for our audience.
Rob: You bet. So if you take this cabin that we’re in and you put it on an all-terrain vehicle and drive it around the lunar surface, well you need essentially the world’s greatest pickup truck – and again, I’m a little biased. This vehicle is a 12-wheel drive, we call it the Chariot Chasse, it can carry this cabin or lots of other things, very capable. It’ll never leave you stranded. It can do everything it needs to do on 5 out of 6 legs, each leg has 2 wheels, redundant motors and drive, redundant batteries. If you had to drive off away from your lander and count on that vehicle to get you home further than you could walk back, that’s the kind of vehicle you’d want to take.
Rob: We also have a small, experimental vehicle that we developed with one of America’s automotive giants. They wanted us to invent the future of the electric car. And so again, we took some of our space technology and merged it with some really innovative ideas in the automotive industry and developed some technologies that I really need for space. A warm-blooded design that allows it to share heat between all the different wheels would be great for us in space. And then a completely hands-free, mechanical-free, what we call drive-by-wire interface. So there are no mechanical linkages going from the cockpit out to any of the steering or brakes. It’s a completely drive-by-wire system. That’s a vehicle we call the MRV.
Rob: We also have some limbed robots.
Russ: Limbs as in arms?
Rob: Or legs. For example, our Spidernaut system has 8 limbs and the joke is: “Where does a 600 lb arachnid go? Wherever she wants!” So, we have the Robonaut 2 system that we’ve developed for helping astronauts inside the Space Station. It has 4 limbs, it has 2 legs that are not like human legs; they’re designed really to crawl around inside, more like rock climbing inside the Space Station in a zero G environment. And then upper arms that are really able to work with the interfaces that are built for people. So all the tools and all the latches and switches and buttons and Velcro tabs that are so easy for people, the robot can handle that.
And then another is our Valkyrie robot, which is really designed for walking. Its legs are much more like ours from the ground up; designed to walk and oppose gravity while carrying an upper body strong enough to really do some work. So the upper limbs again are able to carry the same kinds of loads and payloads that humans can carry around. All of that is knit together by a general theme which is we here at Johnson Space Center are trying to help humans do some of the hardest jobs in the solar system and these robots and vehicular systems are really designed for all to be about helping our astronauts do very tough jobs and get home safe.
Russ: Tell us more about the Valkyrie. I mean I’ve been infatuated with that every time I’ve been here, but what motivated it? I mean it looks like it’s built like a human.
Rob: So we’ve been exploring with the Robonaut platform what it means to move around in zero gravity. So I mentioned the legs are really not like human legs, they bend in ways that ours should never bend. But now we’re thinking about lunar surface and Mars surface and what will it mean to be able to climb around, crawl in and out of hatches, go up and down ladders and explore lunar surface and do servicing. It’s very likely that equipment will be left there for a long period of time in between crew arrivals.
So the crew will come, they will do amazing things, and then they will pack up and leave, and we’re not going to leave somebody behind like you’ve seen in the movies. We’ll leave maybe some robots behind and they will take care of things and keep stuff running and maybe even receive some cargos that come in between human crews and unload the cargo and keep the facility running. More like a caretaker. And so the Valkyrie design was all about that and being able to take that same capability to a gravity environment like the lunar surface or the Mars surface.
Russ: Okay. So many of our guests, towards the end of the interview we like to ask what’s it going to look like 5 years from now. I’m not going to ask that. But I am going to ask when will, do you think based on what you know that you can share with us, that man will be back on the moon?
Rob: The plan is in the 2020s, which I really want. I think it’s hard, it’s dangerous. The astronauts we send are heroes for a reason but we need that urgency. And it did well before having an urgent need and a driver and engineers respond really well when there’s something urgent and so I challenge, and so I’m excited about that. The Apollo program couldn’t really do what we’re doing. We have this ability to send robots first and to test things out; that wasn’t really a technology available in the 60s and early 70s. But we have it now. So it’s not going to look exactly like Apollo. Go in there first with some robotics systems and then setting things up for the humans to arrive, it will be stronger and more sustainable than Apollo because of that.
Russ: Really neat. And we need to do that don’t we, to go further, to go to Mars? To get outside of the earth’s atmosphere for this station, right?
Rob: We do so the moon is a great place to try out this approach and I call it the pre-delivery strategy. You know, the pre-deployment where you pre-position assets at a location. And again, Apollo didn’t have that ability for it to take care of itself waiting for the crew and if you think about all the human exploration that you read about in the history books, none of them had that. We are the first generation that has the robotic technology able to pre-position some equipment at the location and then the humans arrive. And it could really change the way we do exploration.
Russ: Absolutely. Well there’s just so much cool history in this place, NASA and the Johnson Space Center. Being a Houstonian we’re always thinking we’re glad that we’re in Houston and that this is in Houston. But we think sometimes that people outside of Houston think that no, NASA’s not in Houston, Johnson Space Center is way, way outside. Do you feel like you’re a Houstonian?
Rob: Well I am a Houstonian. Anyone who has come to Houston knows that after about 2 weeks here you’re a Houstonian. We’re a very welcoming place and so much of our city is built on people that have come here from all around the country and around the world. So you become a Houstonian pretty quickly but I grew up mostly in Houston. I was here – I hit Kindergarten right after the moonshot growing up in Downtown Houston and now I live in the Clear Lake area and I’m very proud that NASA is such a big part of the history of the city of Houston and we’ve made it into the culture. If you think about it what’s more central to our culture than naming the sports teams like the Rockets or the Astros? There’s a reason for that and that’s why we’re the Space City.
Russ: Absolutely. Before I let you go there’s this thing too that the world sort of caught on to with – which Apollo was it, 13 that had the problem?
Russ: People kind of think that it’s ‘dissing’ Houston to hear the term “Houston, we have a problem.” But man, oh man, did we ever demonstrate innovation for a solution.
Rob: Right, yeah they were calling us for help because they knew Houston could take care of the problem and solve it and bring them back safely. And you know of course ‘Houston’ was the first word spoken on the moon too, so both in good days and bad Houston’s going to be an important part of space.
Russ: Rob, I really appreciate it.
Rob: Thank you, Russ.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Rob Ambrose here at Johnson Space Center in NASA in Houston, TX. And this is HXTV.
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