Q & A
There's an App for that
In 2012 after his freshman year studying engineering at Purdue University, Riley Avron took a summer job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. While there, the Los Angeles native designed an iPhone app that is used to operate a simulator that tests movement by the rover Curiosity, which is traveling on the surface of the planet Mars.
“Engineers can now move (the simulator) Scarecrow just by moving your finger.”
(Leadership Magazine): So, some students work in construction to make money during the summer, others work in offices. You helped explore Mars. How did you get into this?A
(Riley Avron): JPL is near my home in Los Angeles. During the two summers before I came to Purdue as a high school student I did internships there. After my freshman year at Purdue, I was invited back again. JPL has designed and executed every successful Mars landing to date, so it was a great opportunity. On Aug. 6, our rover Curiosity successfully landed on Mars. After traveling about 354 million miles through space, it actually landed a mile and a half from a perfect bull’s eye. I did a little math: that sort of accuracy is roughly equivalent to hitting a golf ball from the Purdue campus to Beijing, China — and landing in the hole — but maybe dropping in from the right side of the cup! Several Purdue people were involved in this. Purdue professor of aeronautics and astronautics Steve Schneider evaluated the heat shield that protected the spacecraft when it entered the Martian atmosphere. Purdue graduate Eugene Bonfiglio, a NASA mission design engineer, helped test and prepare the on-orbit contingency plan that would have been used if a launch failure had left the spacecraft orbiting Earth instead of going to Mars. He was also involved in performing system tests that helped fine-tune the software used to control the spacecraft during its entry, descent and landing. Another Purdue alumnus, Behcet Acikmese, was responsible for developing and delivering algorithms vital for the flight guidance,navigation and control system successful landing. And Purdue alumnus Doug Adams was the parachute cognizant engineer for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory. He helped design, build, test and deliver the parachute decelerator system for the Mars spacecraft. He also helped develop the mortar deployment system, which he describes as an enormous cannon that shoots out the parachute.Q
What was your role in creating Curiosity’s app?A
The rover is about the size of a compact car and much bigger than others we have sent to Mars. At top speed, it will race along at almost a tenth of a mile per hour, but will generally move around much more slowly. Scientists and engineers control its movements from here on earth, sending daily lists of commands through the approximately 142 million miles of intervening empty space. They’re being very careful driving this thing. Forget crashing it — even getting one of the six wheels stuck would be catastrophic. You can’t just call Geico and tell them you just totaled your $2.5 billion rover and need a replacement. So before they move Curiosity on Mars, they simulate what they are going to do here on earth. The earth-bound test rover is called Scarecrow since, unlike Curiosity, it doesn’t have a brain. When I first arrived this summer, moving Scarecrow even an inch was a painful task. Instead of being able to watch Scarecrow drive, engineers had to spend their time typing arcane code into a laptop computer as they followed the vehicle around. Jaret Matthews, a JPL employee and Purdue alumnus, told me he thought that an iPhone app might work better. And when you need an iPhone app … well, that’s a job for a college student. It took me 10 weeks to do it. But I did it. Engineers can now move Scarecrow just by moving your finger on the screen.Q
When news broke last summer that a college student had created this app the story went all over the world. What was your 15 minutes of fame like?A
Being involved with this mission to Mars was the most incredible experience of my life … so far. After all, I’m just a sophomore in college and the sky’s the limit — metaphorically, of course. I had no expectation that this would become such a big story. It was picked up by the L.A. Times, Reuters, media in Indiana. The story ran in South Africa. I just thought it was a summer programming job and it blew up into this crazy publicity thing. It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster. And what a rush. My parents were amazed and more than that, confused. Like me, they don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I play in the “All-American” Marching Band at Purdue and Jay Gephart, the director, saw an article about me and did something I haven’t seen him do before. He emailed the story to everyone in the band! Frankly, I think it’s a good experience helping me prepare for my future. Because I plan on doing a lot more.Q
As a high school senior, you had your choice of schools, including Caltech where JPL is located. What led you out of state to Purdue?A
My major is electrical engineering. I really liked Purdue when I visited. It had everything I wanted — especially a top engineering program. What cinched the deal for me was when I opened a letter from Purdue which said I had been awarded a Presidential Scholarship. I love it here. Purdue is amazing. I play trumpet in the band. I work in a student machine shop in Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering. I struggle with mountains of homework, like any good engineer.Q
Now that you’re not helping to explore Mars, what’s next for you?A
I have a lot of interests. I’ve created computer games. I have two pending ideas for smartphone apps. I have some hardware ideas that could revolutionize the way we use electronics. At Purdue I can take the risk of starting a business and if it fails, the only thing I have to worry about is what I’m going to do next. This summer is a little up in the air. I’ll probably go back to JPL. But there is potential for me to start a business of my own back home. I have a few ideas bouncing around my head. Even I don’t know exactly what they are just yet. I’m going to use my Purdue education to reach for the stars. And don’t think I won’t. I’ve already been to Mars.