Robots Unlimited

Article excerpt

An engineer reaches for Mars, the Arctic, and pediatrics.

SCIENCE FICTION often inspires children to dream of accomplishing great feats. Ayanna Howard is no exception. At age 11 she discovered the TV show Bionic Woman, in which a badly injured athlete is given artificial limbs that grant her superhero-like abilities.

Howard "wanted to be the person that actually built the next Bionic Woman to go off and save the world," she says. Wonder Woman, another role model, gave her the confidence to try. Howard's discovery that she preferred math to biology and chemistry threatened to stymie her plans to create bionic limbs, or so she imagined. But then a teacher explained that her best route to creating technologically advanced prosthetics was through engineering. In high school in Pasadena, Calif., her interest shifted to robotics, stoked by engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who visited the school. She got a summer internship at JPL and eventually - after graduating from Brown University and earning a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California - became an engineer there herself.

Her dozen years at JPL, where she led research teams to develop software to assess planetary terrain for safe landings and for Mars-roving robots, brought her many distinctions, including the 2001 Lew Allen Award, JPUs highest honor for leadership and research. In 2003, MIT's Technology Review named her one of the top innovators under 35.

When funding for NASA research diminished after the space shuttle Columbia crashed in 2003, Howard completed an M.B.A. at Claremont Graduate University and moved to the Georgia Institute of Technology to continue work in robotics. Now an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, she has focused on teaching machines to efficiently survey our home planet "We're working on using robots to do science-based exploration: glacier envi- a ronments, places you want to send robots to gain more understanding of Earth," she says. Based on a snowmobile design and equipped with sensors, circuits, artificial intelligence technology, and a camera, these autonomous roving Sno-motes are intended to navigate Arctic regions too treacherous for human exploration. Data they collect on such weather conditions as wind speed and barometric pressure can help scientists develop more accurate models of melting Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, leading to a better grasp of the changing climate. …