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Arin Morfopoulos - Robotics Engineer
November 19, 2009

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Name: Arin Morfopoulos
Job Title: Robotics Engineer
Education: Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from University of California, Los Angeles
NASA Center: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Hometown: Pasadena, Calif.
Hobby: Rock climbing, amateur writer
 

Tell us about the project that you are working on now.

What attracted you to a career in robotics?

What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?

What prepared you for your job?

Are you involved in any student robotics projects as a mentor or advisor? If so, please tell us about it.

Were you a participant in any NASA opportunities as a student? If so, please tell us about it.

What advice would you give to students interested in a career in robotics?


Tell us about the project that you are working on now.

In research and development, I often work on multiple projects at the same time, rotating between them as the year goes by. I am working on three projects currently: Titan Aerobot Autonomy, Formation Control Testbed, and Stereo Vision.

The Titan Aerobot is a project designed to figure out how we would explore Saturn's moon, Titan, using a robotic airship. Titan is uniquely suited to exploration by airship because of its low winds, thick atmosphere and marshy surface. A rover would have difficulty navigating on the soggy ground, and a satellite cannot see down to the surface through the haze. An airship that could travel below the methane clouds could explore most of Titan but would need to be able to navigate entirely on its own, as the response time from Earth would be four hours or more. This task is dedicated to solving the problems of flying a robotic airship for long periods of time without a GPS (Global Positioning System) or a map, on a world we've never explored before.

The Formation Control Testbed was built to develop technology for use by missions, such as the Terrestrial Planet Finder effort to find Earth-like planets around other stars. Such missions would be designed to consist of multiple telescopes simulating a giant telescope. The idea is that the multiple telescopes fly in precise formation to re-create a single image accurate enough to see something as dim and as small as a planet in another solar system. The challenge of proving that level of precision flight in space is possible was assigned to us, here on Earth, using a giant, perfectly flat floor and robots that float on air bearings to simulate the frictionless conditions in space. Our test robots are 800 pounds, but because they float on a cushion of air, they can be pushed around the room with your finger. The robots have similar electronics and hardware to a satellite in space, and they are the testing ground for future, formation-flying satellites.

Stereo vision is the way you judge distance to objects using your eyes. With robots, we use two cameras, acting as eyes, to do the same thing. The problem with stereo vision is that it can be quite slow, particularly on the flight processors in space. So this task is to develop hardware, a single chip called an FPGA (field-programmable gate array), to perform all the math that stereo vision needs without using the processor at all. Rovers on Mars currently use stereo vision to help avoid rocks and other obstacles, but the rover needs to stop and think for several minutes to compute the distances to all the obstacles. With an FPGA, the rover could figure out where the obstacles are fast enough that it would never need to stop and think, so it could cover much more distance per day than it can now.

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What attracted you to a career in robotics?

I love seeing things that work. I was always driven to try and find a way to apply an abstract theory or equation to physical phenomena I could observe, even if it was only through an oscilloscope. In robotics, the goal is always toward application - the robot should work better or have some new capability after you have designed a new piece of technology. Robotics is so broad, requiring mechanical, electrical and computer science (skills), that I could always find some piece of robotics that was using the class I was studying.

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What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?

Meeting Buzz Aldrin while helping to host a tour of the Formation Control Testbed. (Buzz Aldrin is the second person to walk on the moon.) He asked some really good questions about the technical challenges we faced and clearly admired what we were doing. It was a real pleasure to meet a legend who thought we were doing good work.

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What prepared you for your job?

The single most useful class in college I took was a class on C++ programming. By the end of it, I wasn't elegant, but I was useful. The skills I learned in that class got me my first internship at JPL (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and that internship is what actually prepared me for my job.

The general rule of education is that "if you don't use it, you'll forget it." Figuring out how to use my classes for something before I forgot them was harder than just getting good grades in them, but made me useful when I became an engineer.

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Are you involved in any student robotics projects as a mentor or advisor? If so, please tell us about it.

I was an advisor for the FIRST robotics competition on team 980, which was a lot of fun! (FIRST means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.) The students won Rookie of the Year in the Los Angeles regionals and built an impressive ball-scooping robot. The team still exists, and we still get occasional e-mails from old students letting us know that being part of the team helped them choose an engineering path, which they hadn't thought they were suited for until they tried it. That really is the best part of being a mentor - helping someone realize they have a skill they never thought they'd have, or find a life path they didn't know they could take.

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Were you a participant in any NASA opportunities as a student? If so, please tell us about it.

I was lucky to start out at JPL very young. I became an intern after my first year at UCLA at the age of 17. I learned more as an intern than I could have ever learned in school because of the emphasis on application. When I first started as an intern, I spent most of my time learning to do: how to solder and build electronics from scratch, how to write code in a large software environment, and how to test your software to make sure it actually worked and didn't just fail or crash! It was an amazing environment because I was working in a lab full of other engineers with such diverse skill sets that whenever I touched on a subject there was an expert standing right there. I couldn't overstate the importance that being an intern had upon my abilities as an engineer.

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What advice would you give to students interested in a career in robotics?

Application is key. Experience in making things work … is the most valuable skill there is. In robotics, there are so many fields used that you will never be an expert at all of them at the same time. It is important to have a passing familiarity with the fields other than your own so that you are not in a constant state of confusion, but it is much more important to have built things, beginning to end, yourself. Expertise will come naturally with application.

A new intern that says he has a soldering iron at home and builds circuits for fun in his spare time is worth more than a student with the same GPA who has never touched real hardware. There is no substitute for experience, and an internship under engineers whose jobs are "to make things work" is the best way to get it.



 
 
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Arin Morfopoulos - Robotics Engineer
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Page Last Updated: February 27th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator