Tech Disruptors from the Anaheim Show: Life After the Mars 2020 Rover

NASA is working on bringing back samples from Mars, traveling the planet’s rugged areas, and creating a Mars Helicopter.

The morning keynote panel at the Pacific Design and Manufacturing show earlier this month, revealed a wide range of bleeding edge technology. Tech Disruptors Transforming the Robotics Revolution included Hari Nayar, principal technologist and supervisor of Robotic Surface Mobility Group at Nasa Jet Propulsion Lab; David Noonan, director of systems and robotics at Auris Health; and Brian Schmitz, director of surgical robotics at Stryker. The moderator was Lori Jordan, former director of business development for AI and ML at Microsoft.

NASA, Jet Propulsion Lab, Robotic Surface Mobility Group, Mara helicopter, NASA tech commercialization, cloud computing

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab install the legs and wheels of the Mars 2020 Rover. (Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Hari Nayar offered a look into advances in robotics at Nasa Jet Propulsion Lab. He specifically revealed some of the new projects in development at the Lab’s Robotic Surface Mobility Group.

Nayar explained some of the technology that is reaching beyond this year’s robot star, the Mars 2020 Rover. “We’re working on follow-up missions for the Mars 2020 Rover. One of the missions is to pick them up items on Mars and bring them back to earth,” said Nayar.  “We’re also working on robotics research for bodies further out in the solar system. We work on cutting-edge technology that includes machine learning and AI. We’re looking at areas of Mars we haven’t explored before, rugged areas. We’re also working on a Mars helicopter so we can fly on Mars.”

Nayar’s team uses cloud technology for the Mars project, since a wide range of engineers are involved in the development and operation of the Mars 2020 Rover. “We’re using cloud computing. When we’re operating the spacecraft, hundreds of people on the ground are involved,” said Nayar. “In order to do things quickly, we need a lot of people on earth. When you get the data back, you need to analyze it. It is greatly facilitated by cloud computing so we can share it. The cloud enabled us to share it.”

Getting the Technology into the Marketplace

Nayar noted that one of NASA’s goals is to commercialize some of its technology. “With our own technology, after we’ve used it a few times, we believe it should be commercialized. So, a lot of our work ends up in commercial operations. Our sea cameras have ended up in smart phones.”

Much of the NASA technology that gets commercialized goes through the University system. “We’re a NASA center, but we’re operated by Caltech, so a lot of the technology we develop is licensed by the university,” said Nayar. “We develop useful things that can be further developed commercially. We are also adopting technology that is originally developed commercially, like robotic driving. Some of the commercial development is way ahead of us.”

Another way NASA works in the commercial technology marketplace is to make sure NASA suppliers flourish. “In some cases, we actually help companies grow,” said Nayar. “We need to acquire specialized applications, so NASA invests in companies that develop the technology we need. We try to help the companies grow and provide the products that we will be customers for.

 “We Get Small Business Involved”

In working with commercial companies, NASA has a program devoted specifically to small business. “There are government programs supporting small companies. NASA is a supporter of that. We do support small businesses,” said Nayar. “We also work with small companies to contract some of the work we do. We are not allowed to work on technologies that commercial companies can provide. Some of that work applies to non-NASA entities, and some of those entities are small commercial companies.”

As NASA’s technology spills out into the commercial world, Naysar is surprised to see it show up in familiar places. “I watch TV with my kids, and I end up seeing stuff we’ve been working on,” said Nayar. “The public is excited about the work we do, so we actively disseminate that information.”

Additional articles from this panel look at the advanced work on robotics by Auris Health and Stryker.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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