Finding the best driving route for a Mars rover isn't as easy as turning on a navigation app – but John Park and Hiro Ono want to make it so. A program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is helping them turn their idea into a reality, all while promoting diversity in STEM.
A tenure-track faculty member at North Carolina A&T State University, Park has spent the past two summers at JPL through an Education Office initiative designed to connect students and researchers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to the Laboratory's missions and science. The NASA-backed pilot program has brought more than a dozen student interns and several faculty researchers to JPL for projects investigating Mars, Earth and planets beyond our solar system.
Until his stint at JPL, Park's research focused solely on Earth-bound transportation technologies, such as those used by self-driving cars. When he learned about JPL's HBCU initiative from a colleague who had participated in the program, he seized on the chance to apply his research to space exploration.
"My previous projects and publications have dealt with decision-making tools for exploring uncertain areas on Earth and maximizing the information that's available," says Park, who also helped connect several students from North Carolina A&T to internship opportunities with the HBCU initiative. "I thought I could help bring that perspective to Mars rovers and helicopters."
While researching potential applications for his research at JPL, Park learned that the challenges of getting around on Mars are similar to those faced by drivers on Earth. Rovers also need to get from place to place safely and efficiently – they're just avoiding boulders instead of traffic jams.
It was precisely those challenges that Hiro Ono in JPL's Robotic Mobility Group also wanted to overcome. "I had an idea that I wanted to try, and we had all the ingredients," says Ono, who designs artificial intelligence systems for future rover missions. "The HBCU program allowed us to try the idea."
The HBCU initiative brought Park and Ono together along with Larkin Folsom, a student intern from North Carolina A&T. Together, the trio developed a proposal for a future system that would work similarly to the navigation apps we use to get through rush-hour traffic. The system would allow rovers to analyze routes as they drive, providing mission planners with information about the routes most likely to be hazard-free so they can make the most efficient use of the spacecraft's limited energy supply and maximize the mission's science goals.
"Previously, the way that we operated on Mars was to make the best guess about drivability solely from looking at orbital images," says Ono. "The idea that we are working on is to introduce the concept of probability. So if there are two terrains that are important to you but one of them is 90% traversable and the other is 60% traversable, which are you going to choose?"
In September, the National Science Foundation awarded Park, who submitted the proposal, with a grant to pursue the project. Park says the funding will go toward a JPL internship opportunity for a Ph.D. student from his university to continue research with Ono's team.
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Jenny Tieu is a STEM education project manager at JPL who manages the HBCU initiative with Roslyn Soto. She helped connect Park and Ono and says it's collaborations like these that the initiative was designed to foster.
"Our goal with this initiative is to expand the number of HBCU students and faculty members participating in research at JPL and ultimately increase diversity among the Laboratory's workforce," says Tieu. "This National Science Foundation award is a positive indication that the initiative is not only building strong relationships between HBCUs and JPL, but also creating a ripple effect for additional opportunities."
Now in its fourth year, the HBCU initiative will once again bring students and faculty to JPL for research opportunities in the summer of 2020.
Meanwhile, Park and Ono are exploring ways to expand their technology into other arenas, including hurricane research and emergency response. Park has already received support from the U.S. Department of Transportation as well as the state DOT in Virginia and North Carolina for additional Earth-based applications of the technology.
Ono is serving as a consultant on the projects and has high hopes the results of the research will make their way back to JPL.
Says Ono, "In the long run, having an intern, giving them a good experience, helping their career is going to come back to us. We, as JPL, can build connections around the world and among industry partners that are going to come back to us eventually."
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.