Interview: The driver behind NASA's Mars Rovers

Scott Maxwell must have one of the best IT jobs in the solar system

Behind every robot is a driver. While NASA's twin robot geologists, Spirit and Opportunity, have gained plenty of media attention since they first landed on Mars at the start of 2004, little attention has been given to the team of dedicated IT workers behind the robots, plotting their every move.

We talk to Scott Maxwell, one of 14 Rover Drivers that work in NASA's California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and find out what it is like to control a robot on another planet. Maxwell discusses what makes up an average work day, the highlights of the project, how he got the job, and the tools he uses in his work. Ashley Stroupe also discusses her life as a robot driver in the next part of this two part series.

What in your opinion are the top three discoveries the Rovers have made?

The Rovers went to Mars to help us tell the past story of life in the solar system by looking for evidence of past water activity on the Martian surface. Both Rovers have found such evidence, so I'd choose two of the top three discoveries as independent confirmations of past water activity on Mars -- Spirit on her side of Mars, in the Gusev Crater, and Opportunity on the other side, in the Meridiani Planum.

But maybe their most significant accomplishment has simply been proving that this can be done. Before Spirit and Opportunity, we'd never successfully operated free-roaming Rovers on the surface of another world. It was, in part, an act of faith that we could do it and that it would produce good science. But both Rovers have shown, quite conclusively, that this is not only a terrific approach from a science point of view, but also one that engages the public in a new way.

What does an average work day consist of, from when you arrive in the office to when you leave?

We arrange for our work day here on Earth to match the Martian night, so when the solar-powered Rovers shut down for the Martian night, they send us pictures and other data showing us where they are now and what they did the previous day. Then they go to sleep, and we go to work planning the next Martian day of activities. At the end of our day, we have a list of commands to send the Rovers when the sun comes back up in the Martian sky. At that point, they go to work, and we go to sleep.

The Martian day is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, so this affects our work schedules: some days we start earlier, some days later, and sometimes we plan two Martian days at a time for the Rover and skip every other day here on Earth. (We do that when the Martian night starts so late in the Earth day that there isn't enough time to plan a regular day of activities.)

Insofar as there's an average work day driving the Rovers, it looks like this: as fast as possible -- usually within the first half hour -- we assess the results of the previous day, make sure there are no concerns, and work with the science team to make a good guess as to what we should try to achieve that day. Over the next hour or so, we refine that plan, until we have a solid high-level idea of what we're trying to accomplish -- drive over to that nifty-looking rock about 20 metres away, or pick up the Rover's arm and put it down again over there for example.

The rest of the day involves turning that high-level plan into detailed commands that the Rover can execute. First, we spend an hour or two putting together a good enough version of those commands so that we can show the whole team an animation. Then we hold a meeting where all of the engineers and scientists approve the detailed plan and review the animation together.

In the last phase, we spend a few more hours refining our first cut, debating what-if scenarios. What if that patch of soil is deeper than we thought and we swerve off course while driving through it? Or what if we start to go off course and whack the solar panels into that big rock? We make sure that the commands we're sending to the Rover will do the right thing in the face of all imaginable contingencies. We review this final cut at the day's commands -- twice! -- and if we can't find anything wrong with it no matter how hard we try, we send it to the Rover.

The next day, it starts all over.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Dahna McConnachie

Good Gear Guide
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Bang and Olufsen Beosound Stage - Dolby Atmos Soundbar

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Sony WF-1000XM3 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

ASUS ROG, ACRONYM partner for Special Edition Zephyrus G14

Learn more >

Nakamichi Delta 100 3-Way Hi Fi Speaker System

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Philips Sonicare Diamond Clean 9000 Toothbrush

Learn more >

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit for Nintendo Switch

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Teac 7 inch Swivel Screen Portable DVD Player

Learn more >

SunnyBunny Snowflakes 20 LED Solar Powered Fairy String

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?