Dr. Vandi Verma is a robotics expert and a driver of the Mars Science Laboratory–more commonly known as Curiosity. Being part of the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that designed the Curiosity, Verma was a natural choice to be one of the drivers of the rover once it arrived.
Mars rovers cannot be preprogramed before they are launched because in the areas that they are exploring there are too many unknowns to make preprogramed tracks possible. And due to the large time delay for signals between here and there, driving with a joystick is also impossible. The rovers have to be programmed to be intelligent so they can use their sensors and react to their environment without calling home for more instructions, only asking for help when a fault occurs. That is where drivers come in to try and create a program for the rover to follow to fix the problem or unstick the rover from a bad situation. The team Verma works on can test possible solutions on Earth multiple times and then send instructions for the robot to follow on Mars.
Besides being a driver for Curiosity she is working on future projects at JPL including the Mars 2020 rover mission, part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program which will address high-priority science goals for exploration of the planet including looking at key questions about the potential of life on Mars. In searching for potential life in the solar system, Verma is a flight software engineer for a planned mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons.
These upcoming missions will push the roles of robotics and AI that have been developed by engineers and some people question if in creating these thinking robots programmers are writing themselves out of jobs. Dr. Verma disagrees citing all the ways humans have built deeply symbiotic relationships with machines and our ability to adapt to changes in the way the world works and after all she asks, “How many killer robots do you actually see destroying cities?”
Written by Angela Goad