Ames Researcher Develops Robots to Explore Other Worlds
Terry Fong
Terry Fong. Director of the NASA Ames IRG
While a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pittsburgh, Penn., Terry Fong followed an unconventional path. He was conducting research at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, but getting paid by a start-up company in California. He attributes his academic accomplishments to the encouragement and support of his advisors in college.

"I've been privileged to have had inspirational advisors in college. Their guidance, patience and wisdom are what really prepared me for life," said Fong.

Born and raised in Chicago, Ill., he was always interested in learning about and doing a variety of things. He left his home town to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, where he earned a bachelors and masters degrees in aeronautics and astronautics. By 2001, he had moved to California, and was studying robotics at CMU. Robotics seemed the perfect fit. It is inherently multidisciplinary, covering everything from software to hardware, to electronics to interaction, and 3-D graphics. He also found robotics rewarding, because he could explore places where it's difficult, or impossible, to send humans.

Looking back, he is very proud of the field testing he has performed since 1993. As a member of the NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG), he helped test robots in lunar and Mars analog sites, including locations in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, the Mojave Desert and the Canadian arctic.

"Field tests are the very best way to prepare for future planetary exploration, and we've gained a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge by taking robots into the real world," he explained.

Today, Fong is the director of the NASA Ames IRG, which conducts applied research in a wide variety of areas, including computer vision, geospatial data systems, human-robot interaction, interactive 3-D visualization and robot software architecture. In 2009, his group co-developed "Mars in Google Earth" and "Moon in Google Earth" with Google. The group also remotely operated one of our "K10" planetary rovers to scout portions of Black Point Lava Flow (in Arizona); and used their "GigaPan" robotic camera for science, education and journalism.

"Every day is a highlight. I really mean that. We spend so much of our adult lives at work that it's really important to have a job that is interesting, rewarding and makes you want to get up in the morning. I love my job so much that I can't wait to get to work every day." exclaimed Fong.

His words of advice to others who are interested in a career in robotics: "Learn everything about computers and programming that you can! Almost everything in robotics, whether control or manipulation or perception, depends on software. Having good software engineering and system development skills is really essential." Fong concluded.

Ruth Marlaire
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.