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Release: Immediate

UI engineers develop virtual reality for NASA robot

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Geb Thomas, associate professor of industrial engineering in the University of Iowa College of Engineering, and his colleagues at NASA and Carnegie Mellon University will soon begin testing a robot prototype in the Atacama Desert of Chile, South America in which virtual reality software designed and built by the UI team will allow the public to control the robot.

On Wednesday, June 18 the Carnegie Mellon-designed robot, called Nomad, will begin a 45-day, 120-mile trek across the Atacama Desert to test its ruggedness and versatility for future trips to the moon and Mars. This is the first in a series of tests that next year will send the robot to the Antarctic to hunt for meteorites. As a special feature of the Atacama Desert project, visitors to the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh will be able to drive the 825-pound, four-wheel-drive robot. According to Thomas, who, along with eight engineering students from the UI's GROK lab developed the computer interface that will allow visitors to control the robot, the project underscores the skill of the UI engineers.

"NASA has been very pleased with the quality and the freshness of the work Iowa delivered on this project. We've worked our way onto their short list," Thomas said.

During the mission, UI undergraduate student Emily Wiese will tend the interface from Pittsburgh. And, in a related activity, UI computer science graduate student Paul Henning of Lake Zurich, Ill. is currently helping NASA to prepare the computer interface for the Pathfinder mission scheduled to land on Mars Friday, July 4. In addition, NASA's Ames Research Center and Carnegie Mellon have invited the UI's GROK Laboratory to help build the computer interface that will control Nomad while it searches for meteorites during a future trip to the Antarctic.

"This three-year project will allow the GROK Lab to continue to push the boundaries of the technology farther than it already has and secure its position as one of the top telerobotic interface research organizations in the world," Thomas says.

The UI team consists of graduate students: Steve Zellers and Ming Che Lai, both of Iowa City, and undergraduates Emily Wiese of Clarinda, William Robinson of Ottumwa, April Rathe of Ottumwa, Steve Dow of Urbandale, Yeut Wah of Iowa City, Trianto Hartono of Indonesia and Aytun Ozturk of Turkey.