Curiosity's first Martian 'steps' enabled by student's iPhone app

August 24, 2012  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - NASA engineers training this summer to drive the Mars rover Curiosity were continuously stymied by having to spend several minutes entering arcane code before every maneuver.

Intern Riley Avron, 19, a Purdue University sophomore from Los Angeles, solved the problem by custom designing an iPhone app that makes driving a one-ton robot as easy as a toy remote control car.

"They were spending so much time with their face buried in a computer that they couldn't pay attention to the rover's progress through the simulated Mars landscape - the real reason they were out there," Avron said. "With the iPhone it was quick and easy, and they could really learn what the rover was capable of doing."

Avron recently returned to Purdue to pursue his studies, but the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena still use his app regularly to drive Curiousity's earthbound twin Scarecrow through tough maneuvers on JPL's simulated Mars landscape.

"If the scientists want Curiosity to go through a crater, over a rock or along a ridge, then engineers absolutely have to know if it can do it without rolling over or getting stuck," Avron said. "After all, there's no AAA tow truck to call for help up on Mars."

Avron has completed three internships at JPL, beginning when he was still a student at North Hollywood High School. He is not sure if he will return though – the electrical engineering student has other frontiers to conquer. He has several high-tech business startup plans in the works.

"Where else other than college can I start a business, take the risk of possibly seeing it fail, and then be concerned only with what's next?" Avron said.

Writer: Jim Schenke, 765-237-7296,

Source: Riley Avron,

Note to Journalists: Photos of Riley Avron are available upon request as is video of him driving a Mars rover. For more information, contact Jim Schenke, Purdue News Service, at 765-237-7296,

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