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Release: August 6, 1999

UI engineers, geologists travel to Utah to test Mars technology

IOWA CITY, Iowa — How does a geologist think?

That's one of the questions a team of University of Iowa engineering and geology students hope to answer when they travel to Park City, Utah August 7-14. While there, the team will test new technology and verify intellectual models they have been developing for use in future Mars exploration missions by NASA.

According to Geb Thomas, UI assistant professor of industrial engineering and Graphical Representation of Knowledge (GROK) Lab director, Utah is a perfect test site. "The mountains are a great analog for testing robotic technology headed for Mars," he said, "and a great place for the students to develop teamwork. The purpose is to get going on the technology for our prototypes."

Funded by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium (ISGC), the Project Marvin team includes student researchers from the UI College of Engineering and the department of geology in the UI College of Liberal Arts. Team members, their areas of study and hometowns are: Mike Bauerly, engineering, Council Bluffs; Steven Dow, engineering, Urbandale; Simona Fischer, engineering, Iowa City; Nyssa Loeppke, geology, Dubuque; Rose Mills, biomedical engineering, Burlington; Chris Petrie, engineering, Dixon, Ill.; Martin Rick, engineering, Muscatine; Fitzgerald Steele, Jr., graduate student in industrial engineering, Richfield, Minn.; and Beth Wyatt, engineering, Shell Rock. (Also, Shelley McClarigan of Paul Smiths, N.Y., a computer science major at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y., is a UI team member under the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program.)

Thomas said that he and the other team members hope to submit their technology designs to NASA in the form of project proposals for inclusion in future Mars exploration missions. Mark Reagan, associate professor of geology, and Art Bettis, visiting assistant professor of geology, are collaborators on the project.

"As far as I know, nobody has tried to figure out how a geologist thinks. A successful model of how geologists think about problems could lead to the development of a robotic geologist," Thomas said. Developing an intellectual model will be a challenging exercise in computer software design because it involves blending a sequence of movements that can be performed by a robot with the variety of activities to collect data of interest to geologists.

In addition to the intellectual model being developed by Jerry Steele, the UI team will test ThrowCam, a camera and video transmitter that can be safely thrown at prospective study sites. "The idea is that existing robots cannot get to some Mars sites, such as the bottom of a cliff, where there may be interesting rock strata to investigate. With this device, when we see a scientific target, we can simply throw a camera at it and image the site," Thomas said. Chris Petrie, who also serves as a project manager along with Nyssa Loeppke, has headed ThrowCam development.

Another potential exploration tool being tested is the EndoCam. The device -- a camera with a lens at the end of a long, flexible fiber optic bundle -- is similar to endoscopes widely used in industry and medicine to view otherwise inaccessible spaces. The team plans to slide it into fractured rocks in hopes of learning more about the history of rock formation on Mars and finding a protected environment for primitive life forms, should life exist on Mars. EndoCam's lead developers, Mike Bauerly and Beth Wyatt, have combined the camera with a fluorescence spectrometer, giving them the ability to take readings from the fresh surfaces in the fractured rocks.

Finally, the team plans to test a pan and tilt camera that will give NASA researchers a 360-degree view of the Martian surface. Panoramic cameras have already been used on Mars missions, but suffer from distortion resulting from the camera not being located at the center of rotation. Martin Rick and Rose Mills, lead developers on the pan and tilt camera system, have been developing methods to correct for the distortion, as well as finding a new way of presenting the images to geologists.

After all the data has been collected from the test in Park City, it will be placed in a database developed by Shelley McClarigan. By classifying the data and organizing it into a database, the team hopes to organize the data so that it can be used more effectively used by geologists. The database will allow geologists to make notations and view data over the Internet.

This is not the first time that Thomas and UI GROK Lab engineering students have been involved in a robotic project involving simulated Martian terrain. In June and July 1997, a Carnegie Mellon University-designed robot, called Nomad, conducted a 45-day, 120-mile trek across the Atacama Desert in Chile to test its durability and versatility for future trips to the moon and Mars. Thomas and the UI GROK lab developed the computer interface that allowed visitors to a Pittsburgh lab to control the robot via remote control. In addition, the GROK lab is currently part of a "dream team" of robotics laboratories working on Pioneer, a robot designed to enter the ruined Chernobyl nuclear reactor in an effort to help Ukrainian engineers assess structural damage.

For more information about the GROK Lab and Project Marvin, visit the GROK Lab web site at

The NASA-funded, non-profit ISGC was established in 1990, with additional support from academic affiliates, industry and Iowa aerospace associations. Its academic affiliates are the UI, where the GROK Lab is the lead organization; Iowa State University; the University of Northern Iowa and Drake University. Its purpose is to coordinate and improve Iowa's future in aerospace science, design and technology, and its focus is to stimulate aerospace research, education and outreach activities throughout Iowa.