Sensors Mag

Farewell and Hail

August 17, 2006 By: Stephanie vL Henkel, Sensors


E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

It's customarily said the other way, hail and farewell. Or, if you will, hello and goodbye. Today, though, I'm saying goodbye to a great physicist/astronomer/engineer, and greeting a competition sponsored by the U.S. Navy. There's a connection between the two that I hope will endure.

Farewell, James Van Allen

The great James Van Allen (Van to his friends) was born in 1914 in Iowa. He went to the next world last week at the age of nearly 92. His name is inextricably linked with "belts," as in those bands of radiation girdling Earth that had never even been predicted before Van Allen found them with probes aboard Explorer I, a 31-pound satellite launched in 1958. He did not name them. But behold! A new field of science: Magnetospheric physics.

He maintained his connection with the space program, stayed in Iowa, and was never swept up by the TV studio lights that have led more than a handful of frequent flyers to think that pop is top.

Out of This World

Van Allen watched the same grainy footage we all did—the landing of the Eagle and the lunar excursions of Armstrong and Aldrin. I can never be convinced it was fudged. But neither can I be persuaded that to try that stunt again makes any kind of sense. Van Allen's view of manned space exploration was jaundiced as well. Two years ago he locked horns with the current Administration, saying, "I'm one of the most durable and fervent advocates of space exploration, but my take is that we could do it robotically at far less cost and far greater quantity and quality of results."

I trust he's out there now, and that he's been allowed to hold onto his pipe. Go well, James Van Allen.

Hail, Robotics Competition

In an effort to attract and retain a new generation of engineers and scientists dedicated to the field of robotics, the Navy launched a competition for university students. (It's in its ninth year, but I just learned about it.) In last week's event, the autonomous underwater robots had to travel through a gate, locate and dock at a flashing light, find and tag a damaged pipe, and finally return, guided by an acoustic beacon, to surface at a designated spot.

Not Small Beer

If you know anything about truly autonomous robots, as opposed to teleoperated devices, you know that the 21 teams in this year's contest had some heavy lifting to do. My hat is off to all of them. The navigational software is a bear enough on land. It gets a lot thornier when the robot has to function in an unstructured environment under the waves. (As a Florida State University alum, it pains me to report that the University of Florida's SubjuGator took top honors for the second year in a row.)

Why's the Navy Doing This?

Not surprisingly, the Navy's reasons are not altruistic. It would very much like to encourage budding roboticists to enlist in an autonomous robotics program that's been going for many years. So far, that hasn't happened. Perhaps the timing of the competition has been a barrier. Those who might once have considered a military career as an option equivalent to civilian employment are now having second and third thoughts. My friend Ed Ramsden thinks that those considering engineering in general might be having the same misgivings. But meager enlistment numbers don't mean the competition isn't serving a perhaps greater purpose.

Where Might It Lead?

One immediate use of autonomous robots is location and safe detonation of explosive devices, both in war zones and back home. Then there are perils such as mines in harbors and undersea pipelines with undetected fissures along their walls. But let's look up now and speculate some more. When it comes to scientific explorations of the Moon and the planets (whatever their current official number), robotics is the only intelligent way to go. We're only beginning to discover the effects of deep space radiation on the human body and they are ugly. Wobbly legs from days or months in zero gravity are insignificant in comparison. A visit to Pluto would necessitate an induced and prolonged torpor or some human version of hibernation from which complete recovery cannot be assured.

The One-Way Ticket

Van Allen was right. And I am right. Sending a human off to prowl the Moon or even a planet as relatively neighborly as Mars is pure folly. It's a one-way ticket, especially when it comes to Mars or beyond. Sure, put an ad in the papers or post it online and a line will promptly form. The experience might be fun. For a while. And a very expensive safari. But it wouldn't be science, and the cost shouldn't be borne by taxpayers. Let the adventurers go on their own nickels and accept the risks. I don't want to lose another Challenger or Columbia ever again. (Hey. does anyone else think it a bit ill-advised to name a space shuttle after a continent, however mythical, reputed to have sunk without a trace beneath the sea? That would be Atlantis.)

Spirit and Opportunity, bearing their loads of sensors, are doing science and testing engineering concepts on Mars. The students in the Navy competition did the same in San Diego (and I would venture that their robots incorporated some sensors). Skiers flying down the vertical headwall of Tuckerman Ravine are not even thinking about geology. Or physics. Still, I bet they're having a defining, if final, moment.

Much Obliged

A reader has identified the handheld gas analyzer I saw on various TV newscasts. Thank you!


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