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Vandi Verma with three rovers
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The space roboticist

The first motorized vehicle Vandi Verma ever operated was a tractor. “I must’ve been 11 years old at the time,” she says. During school vacations, she visited her grandparents, who lived in a village in central India. At their farm, her uncle let her take a few turns behind the tractor wheel. Later, when she was a teenager, her father, who was a pilot with the Indian Air Force, taught her how to drive a car. That was unusual in India at that time, where those who could afford a car hired a driver.

Today, Verma is one of the few people in the world who is qualified to drive a vehicle on Mars. She helps operate the car-sized Curiosity rover, which is now prowling the planet, examining its rocks to see whether it is, or was ever, a suitable habitat for life.

I am happy to be working in robotics, pushing the envelope on space exploration.

—Vandi Verma

Each day, before the rover shuts down for the frigid martian night, it calls home, Verma says. Besides relaying scientific data and images it gathered during the day, it sends its precise coordinates. They are downloaded into simulation software Verma helped write. The software helps drivers plan the rover’s route for the next day, simulating tricky maneuvers. Operators may even perform a dry run with a duplicate rover on a sandy replica of the planet’s surface in the Mars Yard at Curiosity’s command center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Then the full day’s itinerary is beamed to the rover so that it can set off purposefully each dawn.

Vandi Verma

Vandi Verma

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the first 3 months after landing, from 5 August to 5 November 2012, the team was working on Mars time. “I loved that we didn’t have to wait long after we uplinked our commands to see the results from Curiosity, and every sol (a martian day), we were doing something we’d never done before,” Verma says.

Landing the job

Verma majored in electrical engineering in India and came to the United States to study artificial intelligence. She was captivated by the landing of the Sojourner Mars rover in 1997 and decided to apply her engineering skill to space exploration. She pursued a Ph.D. in robotic space exploration at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and did internships with NASA’s Ames Research Center. She got her first taste of robotic exploration here on Earth by field testing a rover that surveyed South America’s Atacama Desert for signs of life.

Reid Simmons, her research adviser at CMU, recalls that she was a dynamic, upbeat student who dove right into her research. “But unlike those who do their research and not much else, she was very sociable. She was an active member of the women in computer [science] society, flew planes, and did other outdoor activities during weekends,” he says.

After graduating, in 2005, Verma joined the intelligent systems division at Ames Research Center as a research scientist. Not long before she joined, two new rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, had landed on the Red Planet. Both trundled on for much longer than the 90 days of their primary mission, and when Opportunity was on its extended run, Verma’s robotics expertise and experience with field testing rovers won her the chance to drive it. She drove Opportunity for 3 years.

Vandi Verma

Vandi Verma

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Next came the project that would extend the team’s imagination: the Curiosity rover. “The goal was to do more, more optimally this time,” Verma says.

Curiosity is the most technologically advanced geochemistry lab on wheels to date. With its lasers, spectrometers, x-ray crystallographer, and other tools, it can examine the structure and chemical composition of the martian landscape.

Curiosity can scoop dirt, drill rock, sieve the pulverized matter, and hand off baby aspirin-sized samples to the onboard lab. While a sample is being analyzed, the rover is already on its way to the next sampling site. Verma helped write the code that lets Curiosity juggle these tasks with maximum efficiency. “We have to drive on to find newer things for the slew of instruments to analyze without compromising the rover hardware or the sample,” she says.

She loves her day-to-day responsibility for the machine. “You definitely don’t want to be the one who drove the rover off a cliff! But I find it energizing rather than stressful. You’re completely focused.”

Where to next? 

“With every drive, we get to explore new terrain that no human has seen in this kind of detail,” Verma says. But since its landing, close to 3 years ago, Curiosity has covered less then 11 kilometers of martian terrain. Verma is now working on a software upgrade that will enable the rover to be truer to its name. “When we command the rover to drive to a goal, we are often driving in terrain we don’t have detailed imagery for,” she explains, which presents a challenge when trying to give it specific instructions. The upgrade will allow the rover to autonomously select interesting rocks, stopping in the middle of a long drive to take high-resolution images or analyze a rock with its laser, without any prompting from Earth.

Giving rovers greater autonomy can also help them better handle the unexpected, either in the system or the environment, explains Verma. Diagnostic software could allow the rover to analyze unplanned events and situations so that it can hopefully recover on its own, avoiding a lengthy delay from engineers poring over data to determine the source of a problem and decide how to go about fixing it. And as on Earth, detecting and rectifying a vehicle’s faults on a timely basis can help it function optimally, and for longer, she says.

Originally designed for a 2-year mission, Curiosity is still going strong and has already made many scientifically significant finds. As the rover marches on, it will also help scientists at JPL figure out where a future mission to Mars should look for life.

Although human spacefaring has stalled, Verma says the spirit of exploration is alive and well in space robots. “I am happy to be working in robotics, pushing the envelope on space exploration,” Verma says. “We have reached Mars, our neighboring planet. We’ve have only just begun.”