Beta
×

Welcome to the Slashdot Beta site -- learn more here. Use the link in the footer or click here to return to the Classic version of Slashdot.

Thank you!

Before you choose to head back to the Classic look of the site, we'd appreciate it if you share your thoughts on the Beta; your feedback is what drives our ongoing development.

Beta is different and we value you taking the time to try it out. Please take a look at the changes we've made in Beta and  learn more about it. Thanks for reading, and for making the site better!

Meet the Drivers Behind NASA's Mars Rovers

Zonk posted more than 6 years ago | from the best-game-ever dept.

Mars 67

StonyandCher writes "Scott Maxwell must have one of the best IT jobs in the solar system, driving NASA's Mars Rovers. Behind every robot is a driver. He's one of 14 Rover Drivers that work in NASA's California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Maxwell discusses what makes up an average work day, the highlights of the project, how he got the job, and the tools he uses in his work. A great look at the team of dedicated IT workers behind the robots, plotting the every move of NASA's twin robot geologists, Spirit and Opportunity, since they first landed on Mars at the start of 2004."

Sorry! There are no comments related to the filter you selected.

Anonymous Coward and no javascript (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21383333)

Cannot browse the slashdot anymore.

Women Drivers? (5, Funny)

coolmoose25 (1057210) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383335)

Are there any female drivers and if there are, do they do their makeup in the rear view mirror while driving? (ducking and running for cover)

Re:Women Drivers? (1)

mindlar (707940) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383703)

Yes, some of the rover drivers are female. Unfortunately there are no rear view mirrors on the rover. And yes, they are good looking.

Re:Women Drivers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21384421)

Unfortunately there are no rear view mirrors on the rover. And yes, they are good looking.

Yes, we know the rovers are [nasa.gov] , but what about the women drivers?

Re:Women Drivers? (0, Flamebait)

megaditto (982598) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384465)

I'd hit it.

On a separate note, for several months they've been driving one of the rovers in reverse, with the left blinker on.

Re:Women Drivers? (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#21385447)

Are there any female drivers and if there are, do they do their makeup in the rear view mirror while driving?

And us guys crash watching them put on lip-gloss.
     

Re:Women Drivers? (3, Informative)

ScottMaxwell (108831) | more than 6 years ago | (#21387565)

Are there any female drivers


Three: Ashley Stroupe [nasa.gov] , Tara Estlin [nasa.gov] , and Julie Townsend [nasa.gov] .

Incidentally, they're all terrific speakers as well; if you get a chance to go to one of their talks, don't miss it.

Also, an unofficial trainee for the MER rover-driver role is Sharon Laubach [nasa.gov] , who also worked on the first-ever Mars rover, Sojourner [nasa.gov] (the Mars Pathfinder rover). Sharon's doing this unofficially because officially she's our boss, but she's awesome at it and loves doing it, so we give her a turn now and then. :-)

and if there are, do they do their makeup in the rear view mirror while driving? (ducking and running for cover)


Ahem. Ask them in person sometime, and see what happens.

Luckily for you, they all have good senses of humor, so you're reasonably likely to escape with your life. Bear in mind that Julie does karate, though. ;-)

Re:Women Drivers? (1)

RockDoctor (15477) | more than 6 years ago | (#21421971)

and if there are, do they do their makeup in the rear view mirror while driving? (ducking and running for cover)

Ahem. Ask them in person sometime, and see what happens.

Luckily for you, they all have good senses of humor, so you're reasonably likely to escape with your life. Bear in mind that Julie does karate, though. ;-)
--
``Life results from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators.'' -- Richard Dawkins


Sounds to me like someone is cruising for a (neo-)Darwin award.

All fine and good but.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21383349)

Can I print in duplex with these drivers?

That's all I want to know.

IT? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21383363)

Since when is Aerospace Engineer or Scientist an IT job?

Yes, the rovers use a Microprocessor, but what does not today?

Is a Truck driver an IT professional because the truck has an engine management system?

A Clerk is and IT professional because the barcode reader is on an ethernet?

Re:IT? (1)

mcspoo (933106) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383525)

A Truck driver WOULD be an IT worker if the steering system of his/her truck running through a computer that's worth more than the gross national product of many small countries. Alas, they don't... yet... Relying on Windows to point your vehicle in a direction at any speed is a frightening thought. Ford seems to be moving in this direction with the SYNC system, so it's not so far into the future. "Truck, turn left" "Turning right into Jiffy Lube."

Re:IT? (4, Informative)

iiii (541004) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384659)

Since when is Aerospace Engineer or Scientist an IT job?

Scott is an IT guy.

I think that being the author of "Linux Core Kernel Commentary" [amazon.com] , "the most in-depth guide to the core code of the linux kernel", which was review here on slashdot [slashdot.org] , gives him a smidge of tech credibility.

And you, mister Anonymous Coward, do you have any similar publications?

Re:IT? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21384765)

so which part of New England are you from?

Re:IT? (1)

ucblockhead (63650) | more than 6 years ago | (#21385851)

He is the author of "Frist POst!!!!1", 5:03 AM PST August 24, 2001.

Re:IT? (2, Funny)

mstahl (701501) | more than 6 years ago | (#21387393)

And you, mister Anonymous Coward, do you have any similar publications?

As you can see, he is the most prolific of all slashdot users.

Re:IT? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21440999)

What I'd like to know is when was term "technology" redefined to relate only to IT related fields? An engineer has no tech credibility, eh? I guess I didn't get the memo...

Oh (3, Funny)

niceone (992278) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383377)

That sort of driver.

Re:Oh (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21387657)

Some say he has a third nipple, but doesn't keep it on his person.
Others would have you believe that he is schizophrenic, and talks to himself from two seconds in the future.
All we know, is he's called the stig.

In soviet russia... (4, Funny)

brentonboy (1067468) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383379)

Martian robots drive YOU!

Re:In soviet russia... (1)

ravenspear (756059) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384459)

In Soviet Korea, robotic overlords drive over old people.....while fucking natalie portman.

No tailgating (4, Funny)

Frequency Domain (601421) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383391)

Normal safe driving recommends the "2 second rule". These guys have to allow, what, 20 minutes?

Re:No tailgating (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21383557)

They are all from Florida, right?

Re:No tailgating (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21383765)

No headlights, no indicators, a stuck wheel and no spare, millions of miles to the next garage and coworkers who want to stop all the time to take thousands of pictures: tailgating is the least of their problems.

Re:No tailgating (1)

AeroIllini (726211) | more than 6 years ago | (#21385087)

2 full seconds? At highway speeds that's like 20 car-lengths.

75 mph * 2 seconds = 110 f/s * 2s = 220 feet

Methinks you might have trouble staying almost a full football field behind anyone. The rule I heard was 1 car length for each 10 mph you are traveling, but even that seems like a bit much at higher speeds, especially in congested areas.

Back on topic, I sure wish my car had the same amount of automation as the Mars Rovers. I could just type in "work" to the GPS, the autopilot takes over, and I nap on the way there.

Re:No tailgating (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21385443)

If the driver in front of you slams on the brakes, you have the "time between your cars" to react and also slam on the brakes. If it takes you longer, you're guaranteed to hit the car in front of you unless you have significantly better brakes/grip. 2 seconds is about right, if you include the possibility that the driver in front doesn't brake in time, hits something and stops faster than just with his brakes. Most people don't even once make the calculations and simply luck out. The relatively few who learn the meaning of the numbers in real life hopefully have an airbag and insurance.

Re:No tailgating (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21385995)

2 full seconds? At highway speeds that's like 20 car-lengths.

Yeah, 2 full whole complete seconds. Gosh. It's like we care about safety or something.

Methinks you might have trouble staying almost a full football field behind anyone.

It's not hard. You just don't press so hard on the pedal on the right. With a little practice, anybody can learn to control the speed of their car.

The rule I heard was 1 car length for each 10 mph you are traveling, but even that seems like a bit much at higher speeds, especially in congested areas.

60mph = 6 car lengths = 6 * 13' (say) = 78'. 78'/60mph = 0.89 seconds. If something happens, you have less than 9/10ths of a second to respond. It's about even money whether a human can respond that quick; it's certain, though, that you can't make a car respond that quick.

I'd never ride in a car with somebody who drives as recklessly as that. If I saw a nut like you tailgating [wikipedia.org] me, I'd get the hell out of the way. Thankfully we don't tend to have drivers like that around here.

Re:No tailgating (1)

nobaloney (1012719) | more than 6 years ago | (#21387105)

Back on topic, I sure wish my car had the same amount of automation as the Mars Rovers. I could just type in "work" to the GPS, the autopilot takes over, and I nap on the way there.

Did you read the article? If you had you would have known there's no automation at all; you must have been thinking of the TV show a year or two ago that showed a car that was supposed to be as intelligent as the Mars Rovers escape and started doing it's own thing.

After only one meeting with the Rover drivers, I still couldn't help but laugh out loud at what that car could do.

Re:No tailgating (1)

rossdee (243626) | more than 6 years ago | (#21385637)

Fortunately traffic on Mars is fairly light, the two rovers have the whole planet to themselves.

Re:No tailgating (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21387249)

Or so we think.......

does he have triple A? (1)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383395)

what are the gas prices on mars?

which gps unit works best on mars?

how does he change the windshield fluid?

ok, i'll shut up now...

Re:does he have triple A? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21384663)

Guess what, they can't buy any muffler bearings or blinker fluid either!

Good job, Scott & Company (3, Insightful)

flaming error (1041742) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383415)

> We make sure that the commands we're sending to the Rover
  > will do the right thing in the face of all imaginable
  > contingencies. We review this final cut at the day's
  > commands -- twice!

They're obviously getting this done damn well, to keep these machines going so long after their expiration date. These JPL folks do NASA and humanity a great credit.

Kudos.

Re:Good job, Scott & Company (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21384307)

I agree. Good job, all.
Though, given the current political situation and likely course in the United States, I just hope that future historians aren't writing that rovers were the swan song of the United States as an advanced people.

Re:Good job, Scott & Company (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21385269)

I think you meant to say "These JPL folks do NASA and white, Asian and Oriental humanity a great credit." Obviously they don't do BLACK 'humanity' a great credit, because as we all know, but aren't allowed to say, blacks would never in a MILLION years be able to do what whites have done...

Re:Good job, Scott & Company (1)

ScottMaxwell (108831) | more than 6 years ago | (#21387481)

They're obviously getting this done damn well, to keep these machines going so long after their expiration date. These JPL folks do NASA and humanity a great credit.


On behalf of my team: thanks! And they really are the smartest, most dedicated, all-around finest group of folks I have ever had the pleasure to work with. The whole project is like that; it's the experience of a lifetime, and I'm loving every minute of it.

I ponder (1)

moogied (1175879) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383475)

Does he get an insurance break here on earth?

"Dude, I've been driving a martian rover for over 10 times its orginal design.. NO ACCIDENTS. Come onnnn!"

P.S. Sorry for turning him into a drunken 20 year old in that quote.

Bent brush (3, Interesting)

Cally (10873) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383505)

So... who bent the brush [newscientist.com] ? ;)

Re:Bent brush (2, Informative)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383661)

Who bent the brush?

I find a bigger puzzle in the article: "In late 2006, Opportunity's rock grinder, or rock abrasion tool (RAT), stalled during a grind because an encoder had stopped working. Engineers fixed the problem by writing software to operate the tool without data from the encoder. "So we [have been] able to grind successfully with the device since then," Callas says...Spirit's grinder encoder also stopped working recently, forcing the rover team to implement a similar software fix."

Spirit's rock grinder's diamond heads were all worn out I thought last year. Thus, I thought it could no longer grind at all, only use the rotating brush on rocks. Maybe they mean they applied the same fix to the brush.
     

Re:Bent brush (2, Interesting)

Cally (10873) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384143)

You're correct. The rocks where Opportunity is are mostly soft sedimentary sandstones. Spirit's got lots of volcanic basalt. Hence one RAT is (was) still grinding whilst the other, isn't.

Eureka! (2, Funny)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383523)

Oh, and the first hints of that [water-linked] silica-rich material were turned up by the trenches we dug as we dragged our broken wheel around. Without that hardware failure, Spirit wouldn't have realised one of its greatest successes!

Are they gonna patent their Trench-A-Matic?
       

What?!? No .Net ?!? (5, Funny)

Black-Man (198831) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383569)

Java, Python, Perl and Shell scripts are used to program this thing? I just can't understand a development team shunning XP Pro and .NET. The shelf life was suppose to be 1 year - isn't that about right for a .Net application before permanent and complete failure??

Re:What?!? No .Net ?!? (1)

fbjon (692006) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384995)

90 days, wasn't it? VB6 is almost adequate.

Re:What?!? No .Net ?!? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21386743)

OK, okay, keep bragging it's still the only damn peripheral on earth with Linux drivers, oh, wait...

I, for one (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21383675)

salute our California-based Drivers.

DUI (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21383731)

Hey, i wonder if they can get busted for driving under the influence ?

Maxwell interviews on Digital Village (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21383865)

Digital Village interviewed Maxwell in Sept. 2004 [digitalvillage.org] and again in March of this year [digitalvillage.org] .

Pan-Galactic Traffic Citation (4, Funny)

hullabalucination (886901) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383957)

Dear Motorist:

You have received this traffic citation, on this sol of 13 Smoogna, 1126, issued by the city of Oxia Palus in the county of Planitia, Mars, for the following indicated violations.

__ Following too closely to a boulder.

__ Failure to light headlamps within 5 sols of sundown.

__ Parallel parking on inside slope of crater.

__ Driving in planet-wide reduced visibility conditions without running lights.

__ Failure to signal turn to JPL.

You will find information on the back of this form concerning fees and places to pay your fine. Thank you, and remember: "Unsafe driving will make your fellow Martian motorists see red."

Should have just used LOGO to drive them... (5, Funny)

PainBreak (794152) | more than 6 years ago | (#21383975)

Forward 4000 Wait 2400 Left 80 Wait 2400 Shit...where's my turtle? Guys?...

Where are the specs? (2, Funny)

Cajun Hell (725246) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384149)

Maybe your drivers are ok, but until specs are released, I'm not buying any NASA Mars rovers. The Taiwanese rovers are good enough, and Theo's team have come up with drivers for them, that we can trust.

uh oh (1)

BigBadBus (653823) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384413)

Will these drivers work with Vista or do we have to wait for more M$ patches?

Must have the derisive snort down pat (1)

Provocateur (133110) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384427)

So what is their reaction whenever they see 'Performed by professional driver in a closed course' in any car ad?

Why 14? (2, Insightful)

f97tosc (578893) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384507)

Why do you need 14 drivers for 2 rovers?

Re:Why 14? (1)

pez4realz (1175475) | more than 6 years ago | (#21384745)

Because NASA fired Cole Trickle due to "reckless endangerment" of the entire Mars Rover team.

Re:Why 14? (4, Informative)

ScottMaxwell (108831) | more than 6 years ago | (#21387463)

Why do you need 14 drivers for 2 rovers?
We have at least two rover drivers per rover per day, so in theory, we could get by with as few as four -- as long as nobody takes vacation or gets sick. However, almost all of the rover drivers are part-timers on MER; for career and funding reasons, most people want to have multiple irons in the fire, so we tend to work on more than one project. (And that includes me, though I sometimes wish it didn't. In addition to being the rover driver team lead on MER, I work on ATHLETE [nasa.gov] and Mars Science Laboratory [nasa.gov] , and I worked on Phoenix [nasa.gov] until recently. ATHLETE and MSL are awfully cool rovers, but even so, I miss the days when I worked full-time on MER.)

Also, about a third of the people included in that count don't actually work on MER any more, though they're sometimes called in to consult on tricky days or for anomaly investigations.

Re:Why 14? (1)

connah0047 (850585) | more than 6 years ago | (#21389217)

Hi, Scott!

So glad to see you read Slashdot! I have been trying to get NASA to answer an email from me for a while now and of course I can never get through. I figured this was the perfect "opportunity" (pun intended) to get my question answered if you don't mind! :)

From what I understand, what of the big concerns with the rovers is martian dust building up on the solar panels blocking the light out and keeping the batteries from recharging. I know this sounds ridiculous, and it's so simple that if it would work, NASA would have done it...but why are the solar panels not equipped with the equivalent of windshield wipers that just brush the dust off once in a while? I'm curious as to what challenge would allow this piece of incredible technology to be built, but not simply allow dusting off the solar panels with...a windshield wiper. :)

If you can reply to connah [AT] gmail [DOT] com, I would appreciate it. Thanks, Scott! Take care!

Matthew

This guy is not IT, don't insult him like that. (4, Insightful)

StickyWidget (741415) | more than 6 years ago | (#21385241)

This guy is not IT, don't insult him like that. This was an systems engineering job, taking many different disciplines like mechanical design, controls, computer programming, networking, electrical engineering, and computations/algorithms and rolling it into one. Now, he seems like more of an operations engineer, as he is running what is essentially operations, support, and maintenance for the rover. NOT IT.

Don't kid yourselves, IT is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to tech jobs. The vast majority of IT workers debug problems with Windows security profiles, or check that a port is open on a firewall, or make sure that some top level manager can view his porn through the corporate Web filters. Higher level IT jobs involve putting in a network switch, or maybe making a web site to streamline a business process. Half the network engineers I meet don't know what negative voltage is, and most of the programmers look at assembler and see gibberish. Trained monkeys could do the job if they didn't throw $hit everywhere.

This guy is not a code monkey, he is not a TCP/IP whore, he's an engineer and a scientist. He works on systems that would make an IT guy say, "I only know how to configure Cisco, I don't know how to do that". Or maybe "You can make code turn wheels at a certain speed? WOW!".

Best learn it now, IT (non-management of course) in 5 years is going to be one step above assembly line worker, designated paper pusher, and secretary.

~Sticky
/Go ahead, mod it down. It doesn't make it any less true.

Re:This guy is not IT, don't insult him like that. (1)

marcello_dl (667940) | more than 6 years ago | (#21390317)

Oooh, a professional troll.

You're right (4, Interesting)

ScottMaxwell (108831) | more than 6 years ago | (#21385261)

I *do* have a great job ... and I also read Slashdot. :-)

Almost as cool, but far better at parties... (4, Funny)

bughunter (10093) | more than 6 years ago | (#21385897)

I was at a party recently and met John Callas, the MER Program Manager.

I shouldn't have tried to outdo him by bragging to the hostess that I was the only real "rocket scientist" present. (I build target missiles that get shot down by the MDA.)

A short while later, John used his cellphone to impress a young lady who wandered over to chat him up. He opened up his Razr and showed her how he gets 12-hour updates from each of the rovers via SMS, complete with maps.

The dude gets texted from Mars four times a day.

I had to concede.

Re:Almost as cool, but far better at parties... (1)

ianalis (833346) | more than 6 years ago | (#21388349)

I wonder what the lady's reaction is. I'm working on telemicroscopy and I can control a microscope through phone (SMS, MMS, 2.5G/3G) and other interfaces. Would doing that mean my cold nights are over? :)

Now, what makes me think... (1)

rholland356 (466635) | more than 6 years ago | (#21412581)

Now, what makes me think that you each went home alone after that party?

Those Mars rover drivers like to play tricks on each other, trying to sneak in some instructions in the other guys' files, to make the rover crash into rocks or dive over an outcrop. It's gotten so bad that they hold peer reviews and trial runs before the data is sent to the robots.

Ah, but it's a tough job, too. On one hand you are happy to have work, on the other, you hate those little rovers and wish they'd give up and die already. What's the next career step for a bot driver, if bots aren't going to the moon?

By the way, you don't want to get behind these guys in traffic. They were hired because they actually drive like that...

Mars Time Wristwatch (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21385963)

They had wall clocks at JPL set to mars time, and they even modified wrist watches to keep mars time.
http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=13372 [spaceref.com]

I think that these can still be ordered, if you want a really unique geek Christmas gift.

Donuts (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21390355)

I want to see the mars rover ghost riding the whip and doing donuts, that would surely increase nasa's visibility.

the drivers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21390729)

Behind every robot is a driver.
rofl autonomous vehicle? we're talking serial port drivers, in that case? ;)

Wet dream... (1)

Lindus (22430) | more than 6 years ago | (#21420933)

I am sorry but these women are every geek's wetdream. They're intelligent, goodlooking and have fabulous jobs. The envy quotient for many of us is immeasurable. Their partners/husbands et. al better be good to these women or we'll take them "around the corner" to beat some sense into them. :)

    All in all it is absolutely great these women are so successful in these areas of science that has for a long time been seen as an old boys club. Kudos to them and let's hope they'll have more prosperous careers going forward.

With hopes they all have a great time, /Lindus
Check for New Comments
Slashdot Login

Need an Account?

Forgot your password?