To infinity and beyond
An applied education can take you places — even into outer space.
It is certainly the case for Matt Heverly, Lead Driver for the Mars rover Curiosity and keynote speaker for the School of Manufacturing and Automation Showcase.
Heverly graduated from California Polytechnic with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, and it was the practical skills he gained from Cal Poly that prepared him for his out-of-this-world career.
"There were tons of labs and hands-on experience, and I felt extremely well prepared when I went into the workforce. I had all these skills that allowed me to go out into the world and start practicing practical engineering from day one," says Heverly.
That hands-on experience in robotics gave Heverly an edge in the job market and he soon found himself working on projects of an astronomical calibre.
"When I first got out of school, I started with a company that worked on robotic arms for the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. That was my first foray into robotics for space," says Heverly.
The road to Mars
It didn't take Heverly long to go from working on robotics for the Mars rovers to becoming a rover driver as part of the Operations Team in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) — but driving a rover isn't as simple as grabbing the steering wheel.
It's a complicated process of compiling directions on Earth and sending them up to the rover on Mars.
"We assemble a list of commands for an entire day for the rover. So, we make this schedule and basically email it off to Mars — the rover wakes up at 9 am Mars time and gets this email from Earth and says ‘Oh, Matt wants me to drive one metre forward, turn right 10 degrees, take this picture and reach out my robotic arm,'" explains Heverly.
"At the end of the day, the rover sends us an email back and says, ‘Hey, you know that picture you wanted me to take? Here it is!'"
Since the "driving" isn't in real-time, every movement the rover makes needs to be carefully planned — or Curiosity could take a disastrous turn.
"The hard part is the time delay. Depending on the relative orbit of Earth and Mars, messages can take between 5 and 20 minutes one way between the planets," says Heverly. "Imagine that you're driving a remote control car and see a cliff and hit stop. But it takes 20 minutes for that signal to go to Mars, and it's probably too late by the time it got there — your car drove off the cliff."
Engineering for the unknown is part of the job when you're working on Mars. JPL's "Mars Yard" offers Heverly and the Operations Team a simulated landscape, but they're still working in a completely foreign environment.
"When I can no longer solve a problem the way I'd want to solve it, I have to think outside the box," says Heverly. "That's an interesting part of engineering — you can be very good analytically but being an effective engineer also means being creative. By definition, you're designing new things that have never been done before."
The opportunity to be ingenious — and to get a feel for real-world problem solving — is what Heverly finds most valuable in a hands-on learning experience.
"I'm a huge believer in making education like the real world," says Heverly. "The ability to let students explore different things and understand in college what they have a passion about — so they can enter the field they love — is a really valuable thing in an education."
SAIT's Mechanical Engineering Technology (MET) program with a major in Design and Automation offers students that real-world experience through its state-of-the-art robotics lab.
"The program gives students the opportunity to approach engineering from a practical side and adds to their understanding of theory with hands-on experience," says Olga Malikova, Academic Chair of the Mechanical Engineering Technology Program in the School of Manufacturing and Automation.
"The lab gives our students a true understanding of what it will be like to work in the industry. For their capstone projects, students are working with industry clients to optimize manufacturing processes — analyzing real-world problems and coming up with practical solutions," says Malikova.
For Heverly, that project-based experience is what sets polytechnic graduates apart from their peers.
"I'm hiring interns right now," says Heverly. "When I look at resumes, the things that stand out to me are not how well you did in math or physics but what kind of projects you have done and how you work in a team environment. Of course, they have to have a passion for robotics."
Famous robots according to Heverly
We asked Heverly to weigh in on these famous robots and their fictional designs.