Engineering ‘Reliable Robots’ on The Futures Channel

Burbank, CA March 12, 2007: A typical day for Maria Bualat might include fine-tuning a set of million dollar micro-cameras so the rovers can “see” better while exploring miles of Martian terrain. Half a mile away, Corey Ippolito is designing tele-operated mini-rovers in an office that looks more like a high-tech R&D lab at a toy company than a NASA research facility.

Both Bualat and Ippolito are robotics engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where they design, build and test robots used for missions in space that are too dangerous or impossible for humans. It can take years of testing to ensure that the robots NASA sends to the Moon and Mars will perform well and be reliable. “For a motor, you’ll just run that motor over and over and over for days and weeks and years on end to see how long it takes before it has a failure,” says Bualat, who works in the Intelligent Robotics Lab.

The two engineers are featured in “Reliable Robots,” the latest release by The Futures Channel, a pioneer producer of educational micro-documentaries. As well as introducing viewers to people who love their hands-on, high-tech careers, the movie clearly shows how the math topic of probability plays a crucial role in the real world of space exploration.

NASA engineers use probability calculations to design systems that will complete their missions even if parts of the robots fail. “When you send these robots to far-off places you have to be very careful so that they won’t break, because we can’t send a repairman out,” Bualat explains.

“Reliable Robots” goes behind the scenes to see the challenges they face and the solutions they have used to solve them. Teri Perl of Expand Your Horizons saw the movie as an exemplary way to inspire young people, especially young women, to pursue careers in engineering.

“As a mathematics educator and author, during the past decade I have primarily been involved with issues related to girls and STEM. It has been this interest that has led to my excitement on viewing so many movies produced by The Futures Channel,” Perl says. “In the most current film, Reliable Robots, Maria Bualat is shown working at a glamorous job … NASA! Space exploration! Robots! By focusing on the role of math in the real world, Futures Channel movies address the question so frequently asked by math students, ‘What is this good for?’”

For Bualat, her drive to become an engineer at NASA started early. “When I was in 8th Grade, I read an article about women engineers at NASA, didn’t know what an engineer was, but I knew about NASA, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” She adds, “Basically, I just took the engineering path in school so I could work for NASA and here I am. It’s a dream come true!”



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