Extreme Engineering: Rise of the Space Robots

Dr. Eddie Tunstel spoke as part of Columbia Engineering's Extreme Engineering program.

Sep 23 2016 | By Jesse Adams

Advanced space robotics are helping humans explore the solar system as never before, said Eddie Tunstel, senior roboticist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, in a Sept. 15 talk hosted by the SEAS Extreme Engineering series and the Columbia Space Initiative.

Dr. Eddie Tunstel

As technology evolves from fly-by spacecraft collecting data from afar to surface landers capable of “acting as robotic geologists,” he explained, challenges range from developing intelligent systems that can operate autonomously to crafting machines capable of performing tasks in exotic locales including planets, other worlds’ moons, and comets.

“You might think of the work as a very expensive egg drop experiment, protecting a very precious cargo,” said Tunstel, formerly a senior robotics engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, of helping create equipment that can withstand the harshness of space. “The chips that run your computers and such do not survive space very well, mostly due to radiation and extreme thermal conditions, and many big companies don’t yet see a market in radiation-hardened, space-ready chips.”

Once landed, rovers deploy solar panels for power, utilize instruments installed on robotic arms, and traverse a variety of alien landscapes, including rock, sand, and sheer cliffs, to gather volumes of information and reveal places never before seen from Earth. Tunstel’s current work includes designing devices that can acquire and handle samples, building operational prototypes that can burrow underground through many soil consistencies and gravitational conditions, and engineering hardware that maintains maximum functionality while degrading over long missions far from home.

“In the space exploration business,” he said, “you try a bunch of ideas and see what works.”

Tunstel was introduced by Professor Jeffrey Kysar, chair of Mechanical Engineering, at the newly-renovated Davis Auditorium. The Extreme Engineering series will continue throughout the year.

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