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Getting ready to take the robots to the beach

This summer, Geeked On Goddard is reporting on Engineering Boot Camp, a program run by NASA engineer Mike Comberiate. In the program, new and aspiring young engineers work on technology programs to support NASA science.


photo of interns working in building 25


There was a full house of apprentice engineers in Building 25 the past few days, getting ready for a planned trip to NASA Wallops Flight Facility and Assateague State Park. Today, the boot campers are showing off their robotic projects at Wallops, taking a tour, and having a beach party. Tomorrow morning (Thursday), at 5 a.m., they will take the GROVER2 rover to Assateague beach for his first field trials.

I’ll be there to capture it on video. In the meantime, here is a glimpse into Engineering Boot Camp as the teams hurried to get their ‘bots running.





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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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GROVER2 gets a set of (aluminum) bones

This summer, Geeked On Goddard is reporting on Engineering Boot Camp, a program run by NASA engineer Mike Comberiate. In the program, new and aspiring young engineers work on technology programs to support NASA science.


guillermo and kyle in shop

The other day I stopped by Building 25 — ground zero for NASA Engineering Boot Camp — and was happy to see the ice-crawling robot, GROVER2, taking shape in the shop. Mechanical systems lead engineer Guillermo Diaz (above, right) took me out to a small brick building neat the main building.

In a marathon 36-hour session, slightly bleary-eyed Guillermo helped assemble and weld GROVER2’s aluminum bones together. Fellow Engineering Boot Camper Kyle Hobin (above, left), an undergraduate engineering student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, took the lead on welding the components together. The team had recently cut them from large aluminum sheets using high-pressure water jet cutting machinery.

Guillermo has also been working overtime to make sure that critical components, such as wheel bearings, arrive in time to complete GROVER2 for a trip to the beach next week for field testing.

As planned, the new rover is narrower and more compact, just 54 inches wide, 60 inches high, and 65 inches long, by my measurements. The two 1/4 horsepower electric motors that will drive GROVER2’s caterpillar tracks (adapted from racing snowmobile components) are already bolted to the frame.

With luck, we’ll be on the beach next Wednesday to put GROVER2 through his paces. In the meantime, here’s a slide show of images from the shop.





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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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The GROVER 2 rover was born on this day

June 22, 2011 1 comment
(Left to right) Goddard summer engineering apprentices Christine Redmond, Alex Edgerton,  Guillermo F. Diaz, Kyle Hobin, Yuanyu Chen,  Hamilton Pinheiro

(Left to right) Goddard summer engineering apprentices Christine Redmond, Alex Edgerton, Guillermo F. Diaz, Kyle Hobin, Yuanyu Chen, Hamilton Pinheiro


It was the morning of Friday, June 17, 2011. I got calls and emails from Guillermo Diaz, telling me to come to Building 5. “We’re cutting metal.”

Guillermo is a participant in the 2011 NASA Goddard Engineering Boot Camp and the Mechanical Team Leader for the GROVER 2 project. It’s his responsibility to pull four teams of young engineers together and build the mechanical portion of a solar-and-wind powered, ice-crawling rover called GROVER 2 in just about 10 days. On this day, Guillermo’s team started to cut components from aluminum sheets to build the caterpillar-like lower chassis of GROVER. That happened in Building 5, the machine shop and metal fabrication facility at Goddard. We watched, somewhat amazed, as a high-pressure jet of water, mixed with an abrasive material (ground-up garnet mineral) sliced through the aluminum sheet like a knife through butter.

One of the metal cutting technicians from the Advanced Manufacturing Branch, Marvin Kaufman, explained how it all worked as his colleague Emeril Gary operated the Mach 4 Waterjet machine, made by the Flow International Corporation of Kent, Washington. He said the pressure on the machine was set today to 55,000 pounds per square inch (psi). That is the pressure you would experience at a depth of 24 miles under the sea surface!

The machine could go up to an unimaginable 98,000 psi. You can cut steel with it. An intern with the Branch, Christine Redmond, pointed out a cylinder of solid aluminum more than 5 inches thick, resembling a cheese wheel, that had been cut with water. Nearby, a pallet of paper sacks contained the glittering red garnet mineral that, when mixed with water, forms a liquid knife to cut the metal.

Imagine being a college engineering student cutting metal like this and building a robot in 10 days!


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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Introducing Andy Hoffmaster and GROVER the rover

Post 1: Welcome to Engineering Boot Camp
Post 2: Introducing Andy Hoffmaster & GROVER the rover

Andrew Hoffmaster and GROVER, Assateague Island State Park, Md.

Andrew Hoffmaster and GROVER, Assateague State Park, Md.

Andrew (Andy) Hoffmaster is one of the dozens of interns working this summer in the Engineering Boot Camp at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He recently graduated from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with a degree in biomedical engineering

It’s Hoffmaster’s third year in Engineering Boot Camp. This year he has stepped up to a leadership role, supervising five different teams of interns who are working on a science robot called GROVER. In a time-honored NASA tradition, “GROVER” is a very impressive-sounding acronym: Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research.

photo of grover rover on beach

GROVER on the beach.

GROVER, in a nutshell, is a solar-and-wind-powered, caterpillar-tracked rover that carries a ground-penetrating radar device. It is designed to roam alone for months at a time measuring the thickness of the Central Greenland Ice Sheet, which is about the size of Texas. “The problem with sending people is that they run out of food and fuel too fast,” explains “NASA Mike” Comberiati, who runs the internship.

Someday, GROVER will crawl across frigid Greenland at up to 3 mph, 10 hours per day, for 4 months. NASA Mike and his interns are working with NASA cryosphere researchers Lora Koenig and Hans-Peter Marshall on the project. (Koenig is based at Goddard; Marshall is at Boise State University in Idaho.

GROVER being unloaded.

GROVER being unloaded.

Hoffmaster and GROVER have spent a lot of time together, although in his first year  internship (2009), he didn’t work on GROVER at all. He designed and built the mechanical parts for a laser-scanning device on another robot, referred to as “the Mothership.” More on the Mothership in future posts, but you can take a quick look at her HERE.

GROVER 1 & 2
In his second internship season (2010), Hoffmaster started working on GROVER. He built the housing for the rover’s electronics. In January 2011, he accompanied Comberiati to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to help install and configure equipment to communicate with NOAA POES satellites.

Making tracks!

Making tracks!

GROVER 1 (shown in the video and images in this post) weighs about 700 pounds. Its solar panels and wind turbines — the spinning blades produce power when it’s cloudy — provide ample power. It has performed admirably in testing.

But GROVER 1 is too heavy and too big, and it takes too long and too much work to unload and assemble. This summer, the interns assigned to build a better GROVER.

GROVER 2.0 will be lighter and smaller. It will sport more efficient solar panels and a lower center of gravity to resist tip-overs in gusty Greenland winds. The rover will also gain software to allow it to operate without constant human monitoring, and to uplink data via the Iridium satellite network.

Also, GROVER 2 will be fabricated in three sections to enable rapid assembly by people wearing bulky cold-weather gloves. After all, standing around in the cold in Greenland can be a health hazard!

This, and more, will require the labor of five intern teams to design, build, and test the electrical components and systems (headed by Hoffmaster) and four mechanical teams (headed by senior intern Guillermo Diaz, a student at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico). It all has to happen in about 5 weeks’ time.

Last year’s crop of interns completed construction of GROVER 1, which today sits on the front lawn of Building 25 in Goddard’s wooded east Campus. The rover will serve this year as a test bed for some of GROVER 2’s new systems.





On the beach with GROVER
It was a chilly day, April 1, 2011. Hoffmaster and three other interns drove with NASA Mike down to Assateague State Park, with GROVER on a flatbed truck. While backing GROVER down the ramps onto the beach, they paused cautiously to check the rover’s orientation.

Then something weird happened, Hoffmaster says. One of the twin caterpillar tracks switched into full reverse and tipped GROVER off the ramps and onto the sand. Thankfully, the robot was unscathed except for a piece of bent metal.

The culprit: “anomalous cold bit.” To us non-specialists, that means that because of cold temperatures, the caterpillar track’s electronic controller sent an incorrect instruction. It’s just the sort of thing that can happen during the development of new technology, and the interns will work to solve it this summer.

On the beach, GROVER proved itself, with enough traction to drag Andy across the sand. Sand, it turns out, is close enough to snow (from GROVER’s point of view) to provide a decent simulation of the rover’s performance in Greenland. They tested it until 3:30 that afternoon and headed for home.

Andy says Engineering Boot Camp gave him valuable engineering insights and skills that he will be able to apply to his new job with Aretech in Dulles, Virginia, developing physical therapy equipment for rehabilitating stroke patients. He’ll work on a device called a “body weight support gait trainer.” It’s a harness on a motorized trolley track that supports patients safely as they re-learn how to walk after brain injury. “I took what I learned at Goddard and can apply it to human kinematics.”

Welcome to Engineering Boot Camp at Goddard Space Flight Center (please don't trip on the robots)

June 10, 2011 2 comments
<i>Talk to the hands: NASA Mike addresses new interns.</i>

Talk to the hands: "NASA Mike" Comberiate addresses new interns.

If you have ever met the man they call NASA Mike, you would remember him. Michael Comberiate, 42-year veteran of NASA, is not easily forgotten. He’s the late-night infomercial pitchman for engineering internships at Goddard, with a dash of Donald Trump and a modicum of Muhammad Ali.

A few months ago, I saw NASA Mike give a talk about robots his interns are developing for research at the polar regions and perhaps, someday, other planets and their moons. He radiated waves of enthusiasm and excitement. This was clearly an interesting fellow, so I asked if I could hang out with him and his engineering interns for the summer and try to chart their adventure — and here I am, writing my first post.

"NASA Mike" Comberiate and intern with mothership robot Nanook and summer intern Randy Westland.

NASA Mike and summer intern Randy Westland with mothership robot Nanook.

Mike is passionate about his interns. Within 10 minutes of meeting him, there is a good chance he will already be trying to talk you into helping to mentor them, assuming you’ve got applicable skills and experience. (Yes, I speak from experience.)

The program is called Engineering Boot Camp. Thanks to generous grant support from the NASA Robotics Alliance Project — it sponsors robotics programs in schools — Engineering Boot Camp has a decidedly mechatronic focus. (The GOES-R and POES satellite programs also contributed support for the internship this year.)

Some of the sharpest interns will be steered into projects based in the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at Goddard — these are the researchers, not the engineers. These include:

  • develop hardware for a formaldehyde detector and other hardware that will fly on the NASA Global Hawk, a remotely piloted drone aircraft used for high-altitude research.
  • build mechanical components for the Primordial Inflation Polarization Explorer (PIPER), a balloon-borne instrument to measure the polarization pattern of the cosmic microwave background.
  • write software for a ground station located at McMurdo Station, Antarctica that supports the NOAA Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite (POES) fleet.

Out of a pool of about 800 candidates this year, about 30 won the chance to plunge into Mike’s robot-strewn lab in Building 25 (the building nestled in the wooded east campus of Goddard with the 700-pound robot on the front lawn that looks like a caterpillar earthmover and a billboard truck had a baby.) One lucky intern will accompany Mike to Antarctica in the spring to test robots.

It’s going to be a crazy summer. Some projects will be conceived, designed, and built in as little as 6 weeks. The collaborations of multiple teams of interns and mentors will be something like slightly uncontrolled nuclear fusion.

There’s a lot more to this story. In a subsequent post, read about some of NASA Mike’s past adventures and how Engineering Boot Camp was born. In the meantime, here’s a quick peek at NASA Mike’s Robot Adventure Land.




Last year, summer interns Matt Harrington and Courtney McEachon made this 8-minute video documentary about the 2010 Engineering Boot Camp.



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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.


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