Life among the Robonauts

Author: Barbara Leonard
Q & A with NASA engineer Nic Radford

For the last eight years, Nic Radford (BSEE ’00) has been engaged with some of the most progressive, state-of-the-art robots on earth as NASA’s deputy Robonaut project manager and Robonaut chief electrical engineer.

Nic Radford and R2 have teamed to make life easier for astronauts.

Designing robots to assist astronauts during space travel? Dreaming of a day when robots and humans collaborate in even more dynamic and powerful ways? Sure, it’s all in a day’s work.

Q: What is a typical day like?

A: My days revolve around launching the first humanoid, Robonaut 2 — R2 for short — into space. In 2007, General Motors and NASA came together and pooled their resources to design and develop the world’s most advanced humanoid. It was unveiled in February and was scheduled to go to the International Space Station on Nov. 30 onboard STS-133. It will serve as the most advanced robot ever flown into space and aid the astronauts in their daily activities.

I lead a team of engineers qualifying R2 for the rigors of space flight. My job entails two separate and distinct functions. Programmatically, I’m involved in high-level decisions that help determine our group’s resource utilization, vision and direction within our branch. On the technical front, I lead the electrical engineering design team, where I am responsible for all of Robonaut’s electrical subsystems including the embedded avionics, power systems and electromechanical devices. This involves architecting major design strategies, conducting design reviews and integrating with the engineering disciplines.

Personally, I specialize in developing highly integrated, FPGA-based, custom 3-phase brushless DC motor controllers, and my research interests include optimized motor design.

Q: What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve been involved with?

A: I’ve been with NASA’s Dexterous Robotics Lab for the past eight years. During my tenure, I’ve been able to work on the most state-of-the-art robots found anywhere in the world. The original Robonaut, R1, was the first generation humanoid designed for helping astronauts and paved the way for the development of R2. During that time, I have also had the chance to help design and build Spidernaut, a 600 pound arachnid robot used for in-space construction and maintenance, and Centaur, a mobile and dexterous version of Robonaut that included a four-wheeled base as a lower body.

The most exciting project I am involved with is designing and developing the bipedal version of Robonaut with the hope of landing it on the moon circa 2013.

Q: What do you see in the future for space travel and interplanetary discovery?

A: I see a multi-agent exploration paradigm where robots and people explore the cosmos in a deep and connected partnership. I feel as robots become more robust and advanced, humans will start to rely heavily on these mechanical counterparts. I truly believe that humans will more effectively explore space with robots. As Robonaut becomes the seventh crew member aboard the International Space Station, I’m proud to be a part of starting that era.

Q: Did you always want to work in the space field?

A: I like to say that I’m a roboticist first and a space junkie second. Space exploration and specifically robotic precursor missions are a pretty cool business to be in, but I hope to one day use what I’ve learned designing humanoid robots to better the field of biomechatronics and exoskeletons. I’ve always believed that the logical conclusion of robotics is human performance augmentation, and I’d like to someday launch my own startup company in that field.

Q: How did your Purdue degree help prepare you for your career?

A: Purdue is a very hands-on, laboratory- and design-oriented university. This equipped me well for my work at NASA. You truly understand the value of Purdue once you get out and have a little perspective. It offers an education that goes beyond textbooks.

Q: If you could give advice to a current Purdue ECE student, what would it be?

A: Learn how to break things. This is vital. It’s ok to burn your board up. Don’t be afraid to crater your project into a pile of rubble. It’s OK to put together your first prototype and have it not quite work right. Do learn to the fullest from your failures. Failures lead to successes. No one, and I mean no one, gets it right the first time.

Q: What do you do when the work day ends?

A: I play keyboard in a few bands and pretend to be a real rock star with my Xbox 360. I also enjoy working on and racing my Cadillac CTS-V at tracks around Houston. I love spending time with my beautiful wife, Tammy (BSME ’00) and our adorable little girl, Hannah. And, I will complete a master’s degree in electrical engineering in the spring of 2012.