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Fernando Zumbado - Robotics Systems Engineer
November 9, 2009

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Name: Fernando Zumbado
Job Title: Robotic Systems Engineer
Education: Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University, Master of Mechanical Engineering from Rice University, currently pursuing Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology
NASA Center: Johnson Space Center
Hometown: San José, Costa Rica, but I consider Chicago my U.S. home.
Hobby: Playing guitar, soccer and volleyball. I also enjoy going to baseball games and cheering for my favorite team. (It's from the north side of Chicago, any guesses?)
 

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.

To fulfill some of the exploration goals set forth by NASA's Constellation* program, crew members must be able to explore the lunar surface beyond the safety of their habitat. Astronauts on foot can only explore a small area around the habitat, possibly more with an unpressurized rover as used during Apollo. However, for the exploration radius to be expanded beyond that, there must be a solution that allows crew members to remain away from the habitat once their extravehicular activity (EVA), or spacewalk, is over. A vehicle with a pressurized cabin that can sustain extended EVAs and serve as a mobile habitat would provide quite an attractive option. The team of engineers I have the privilege of working with is developing a prototype lunar rover that would allow for such an exploration scenario. The Lunar Electric Rover (LER) would provide a crew of two astronauts the capability of exploring the lunar surface from the comfort of the cabin. Then, when an interesting lunar feature or a mission task is reached, they can perform a spacewalk and return to the cabin instead of returning to the habitat once the task has concluded.

During the development of the Lunar Electric Rover concept, I have been fortunate to be involved in many of the design tasks. I designed, assembled and installed the rover's cabin displays. These displays are where all the functions of the vehicle are monitored and controlled. Through the graphical interface designed by another engineer, the crew is able to press a button on the display to select vehicle settings ranging from cruise control to monitoring vehicle status. I have also designed and built a portable potable - fancy word for drinkable - water system that allows the crew members of the LER to prepare their meals with hot water as well as quench their thirst with cold water. During the development of this system, I had to learn a variety of skills and nuances to ensure the water dispensed from the system was safe for the crew. The LER engineers and crew recently completed a 14-day mission in the Arizona desert as part of the Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS). The Desert RATS performed a range of mobility tests and extravehicular activity simulations. These tests will demonstrate feasibility of surface operation concepts, including rovers, EVA timelines and ground support. The terrain of the Arizona desert provides a testing environment geologically similar to the lunar surface.

I also was involved in a working group that was looking for an airless solution to the lunar wheel. In the vacuum of space, a pressurized tire is like a bomb that can injure astronauts if it were to puncture. Also, traditional pneumatic tires are made of rubber. This material would not be a good choice because of the huge temperature ranges on the moon. One side of the tire could be below freezing temperatures sitting in the shade while the opposite side facing the sun could be well above boiling. We teamed up with other NASA centers and industry to, literally, reinvent the wheel. So far, there are some promising results that we hope to see on the Lunar Electric Rover as it drives on the lunar surface. This was perhaps my favorite project since we got to meet and ask questions to the engineers that developed the original Apollo lunar rover. In the picture you see, I am next to an original Apollo rover wheel - a thrilling experience for a young engineer.

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What attracted you to a career in robotics?

Robotics always has been something I found interesting. However, when I was an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, I stumbled into the yearly robotics competition held every spring. I was planning only to check out what all the people were watching, but I ended up staying for the whole event - all four hours! I was consumed by all the different solutions the teams had conjured for the maze they needed to navigate. Shortly after, I enrolled in robotics courses in the engineering school and chose robotics as the concentration for my mechanical engineering degree. I also applied to work at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston as a co-op student. Once hired at Johnson, I began working in the robotics group and enjoyed the cutting-edge technology work.

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

We had the honor of participating in President Obama's Inaugural Parade. NASA displayed the past, present and future of human spaceflight. The past was represented by none other than Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon. The crew of STS-126 represented the present of NASA. Finally, I felt incredibly honored that the agency would choose our project to represent the future of space exploration. It is hard to explain the pride and satisfaction you feel when you present your work to the American public and they react in such a positive and enthusiastic way. It was a freezing night in Washington, D.C., but the cold started to matter less when I saw children's eyes swell with amazement as the rover rolled by the viewing stand. When the president and the first lady were smiling as they saw the vehicle and some of its capabilities, I understood that what we do is unique. Not only is it an impressive vehicle, by any standards, it is the only one of its kind.

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What prepared you for your job?

First, my professional foundation was created during high school and college. It was there I truly discovered what I wanted to do and what I was good at doing. But the bulk of the practical knowledge I gained was through my co-op tours at Johnson Space Center. As a college student, I applied to the co-op program at Johnson, and it was there I started growing as 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.

Our group at Johnson Space Center is heavily involved in robotics education. The engineers in our group mentor a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team. Each year, high school teams from all over the U.S. and abroad design, build, test and perfect their robots to compete in an ever-changing challenge. Students spend a lot of time learning about basic robotics, such as control schemes, transmission design and end effector development. They also receive a unique opportunity to learn skills that rarely are taught in the classroom. They also get to hang out with a lot of passionate NASA engineers - what could be better than that?

I have not personally mentored a team, but I have served as a referee during the competitions here at the Houston regional. I like being down at the field level and getting close and personal with all the wonderful machines that students have built. It also allows me to look at the robots in a different light than the mentors since I have no bias to a particular robot. I begin constructing the "perfect" robot in my head, including what I perceive to be the best solutions to the different aspects of the competition.

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

I have been working at Johnson Space Center for nine years, four as a full-time employee. During my sophomore year in college I applied to the co-op student program. The following fall, I started working as a co-op in the robotics division at Johnson and have not left. One of the best qualities of the co-op program is that you are encouraged to explore the different areas of the center and get an appreciation of the work done in the various groups across (the center). I was very lucky to start working with such a dynamic group that I was never bored. My first task consisted in designing a prototype haptic glove to give feedback to a robot's users. Haptics is the field in robotics that deals with providing feedback to the operation through the sense of touch. So during this time, as my first engineering job, I was able to implement my own design and prototype some hardware.

During my second tour at Johnson, I joined the structures division and helped redesign a limit switch. I was able to reduce the size and weight of the switch without compromising its function. It sounds somewhat trivial, but the coolness factor comes from the fact that switches like that are now part of the Low Impact Docking System that is being developed for use in the Constellation program.

My subsequent tours brought me back to the robotics division. Here I did a plethora of tasks, from assembling an anthropomorphic (human-shaped) robot known as Robonaut to designing unique hardware. Something that surprised me at first while working at Johnson was that the work you are assigned as a student is important to the mission of the organization. You are given tasks that are meaningful, not only to your professional development but also to the success of the group.

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

First and most important, do what you love to do. If you like electronics and circuitry, pursue robotics through electrical engineering. If you like programming, create new algorithms to solve the problems that we face with artificial intelligence. It is my strong belief that even though you might find something interesting and fascinating, if you don't have passion for your work, you won't succeed. Secondly, school and college prepare you with the basic knowledge that is required in your profession. Yes, you have to pay attention in class and learn physics, mathematics and other basic sciences. Without a strong foundation, it is very difficult to succeed at a higher level. But most important of all, learn how to learn. Understand how to approach a problem, how to craft a solution and how to implement your solution. Know that if you don't remember how to use a formula, you can open the textbook and understand how to properly apply it. It is through constant learning that you are going to be able to grow professionally. A lot of the tasks I have done while at NASA I had little knowledge of when I began the project. However, through dedication and my ability to learn new things, I was able to reach a solution. Finally, have fun, lots of fun.


*The Constellation program is no longer an active NASA program.

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Fernando Zumbado - Robotics Systems Engineer
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Page Last Updated: March 26th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator