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Home > February 2016 > Meet Aaron Parness during Kids Week!
Meet Aaron Parness during Kids Week!
Seperator
Posted: 2/9/2016 4:19:08 PM

 
 

Joining us for Kids Week will be one of the innovators at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which explores the most extreme environment of all—space! The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) sends robotic explorers—in the form of rovers, satellites and other spacecraft—deep into space to help us learn more about the universe.

Aaron Parness is a robotics engineer at JPL, and he builds these space explorers. To preview what’s in store for Kids Week, we asked Aaron to tell us a little bit about his work. We hope you find what he had to say as inspiring as we did.  

Aaron joined JPL in 2010, after earning his PhD at Stanford University. Today he and his team are working on creating super-sticky adhesives, inspired by geckos, that will be used on robot feet to make them better climbers. They’re also building robotic grippers that will grab a huge boulder from an asteroid, giving astronauts the chance to study samples and learn more about the formation of our solar system and the beginning of life on Earth.

“The problems that we work on are very compelling,” said Aaron, “You are at the cutting edge of the technology, and you are applying it to missions that are expanding the reach of humankind and discovering things for the very first time.”

During Kids Week, he’ll talk about these missions and even bring in a few things that he and his team have built. Until then, read our interview with Aaron to learn more about his exciting work and why he loves it.

Intrepid Museum: What is your role at JPL?

Aaron Parness: I am a robotics engineer in the Extreme Environment Robotics Group. I lead projects that develop robots (or parts of robots) to explore places in the solar system that are very hard to go—for instance, the side of a cliff on Mars or the ceiling of a cave on the moon or the surface of an asteroid, where there is no gravity. My lab has special expertise in grippers and wall-climbing robots. We do a lot of 3D printing and rapid prototyping. We also test these robots in extreme environments on Earth to see if they work and improve them before sending them to space.

The short and simple version is that I build special feet for robots, with claws or sticky pads that allow them to explore places on other planets where robots with wheels won't work.

What projects are you currently working on?
        
The biggest is designing robotic grippers that will pluck an SUV-sized boulder off the surface of an asteroid, as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. I am also working on research projects to build a rock-climbing robot, gecko-inspired adhesives, and a VolcanoBot that can map the underground pathways of previous eruptions.

We are sending our gecko adhesive up to the International Space Station for testing in March. We will be going to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii to map some volcanic vents with our robots, and doing some more field testing in the Mojave Desert with our rock-climbing robot in the fall. We might test again on the zero-gravity airplane (the Vomit Comet). We have a lot on our plate, but it’s the kind of job where you forget to go home at the end of the day until your stomach starts growling at seven or eight o'clock!

What excites you most about working in robotics?

There is a lot of opportunity to be creative in the way you solve problems.  If you want a robot to get to the top of a tree, you could build a legged climbing robot, you could build a flying robot (with wings or with rotors), you could build a snake robot, or you could build a robot that cuts down the tree.

In our lab, we explore these options through rapid prototyping, so it’s very hands-on. When we start on a problem, we will build three or four completely different kinds of robots, none of which will really work well, but building is a way of thinking about the problem in a way that is much deeper than sitting with a piece of paper. By the time it’s ready for use in space, it is probably the 15th or 20th version of the robot. So you also get to see yourself making progress, even though it may take 10 or 20 years to go from the drawing board to the actual use of the robot in space.

Robotics is also a very exciting field right now. There are a lot of breakthroughs and new technologies getting invented, so it never gets boring.

What is it like to work at NASA?

Working at NASA, and at JPL in particular, is incredible. I love my job. You get to work in teams of very smart people who are the world's expert in lots of different areas. I work on designing robots as a mechanical engineer, but I am always working with electrical engineers, computer scientists, geologists, aerospace engineers and rocket designers. I also feel like it’s a great privilege to get to work on these problems on behalf of the whole world—so you feel very lucky that you get to contribute in a way that feels very meaningful. 

What advice do you have for kids who want to work in your field?

Math and science are the foundation of this kind of work, so you have to work hard in those areas. My biggest piece of advice though would be to start building things—do projects where you are applying the lessons you are learning in your books. That could be at home making stuff that you find online, from places like Pololu, Vex, Instructables, Makezine and Lego Mindstorms. There are a ton of kits and projects that are accessible to kids. Now there are also a lot of programs in middle schools and high schools where you can join robotics clubs and teams. These are great (I'm jealous because they didn't really exist when I was that age!).

And I would say it’s never really too early or too late to get into robotics—you just can't be afraid to try something that you don't know exactly how to do. I still do this all the time, and you learn more through failure than you do if it works perfectly and as expected. I have never had version one work! 

Why do you think educational institutions like the Intrepid Museum are important?

These institutions bring science and engineering breakthroughs to the public, and make it accessible. Plus it’s always a fun day to be there. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but my parents took us to the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum regularly. I have lots of good memories of that, and I'm sure it helped sow the seeds for my path.

With the work he’s doing at JPL, Aaron’s path will reach to Mars and beyond. He’ll be at Kids Week on February 15 and 16 to share some of his own science and engineering breakthroughs, so head to the Intrepid Museum and hear about them straight from the source!

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