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Friday, 25 November 2011

A sneak peak at things to come? Rovers and grad work

So, I promised yesterday that I would give you some details on an excited event which took place, and here are said details.

I've been trying to talk to certain professors at York University about grad school. I want to get their advice, in general, and I'd like to talk to them about their own work and also about possible letters of reference. Yesterday, I was asked by one of those professors, Michael Daly, with whom I've been in contact, to come in and see what he was working on.

The 4th floor of the Petrie Science building at York University is definitely a place to go if you want to see some applied science, especially in the field of space sciences. If you're ever feeling bad or thinking that York is a crummy school, you should go there and see some of the cool things some of our professors are working on.

When I arrived at Professor Mike Daly's lab, it looked pretty impressive. I'd been there before, for one of his classes, but the level of activity combined with the decor impressed me. First thing I noticed, was the 50 inch Aquos Quatron display TV sitting on the wall, with what looked to be some sort of map with waypoints on it. On the left side of the room, lay a couple of work benches and a cross between a messy field of wires, and some instrumentation, mirrors, 3d microscopes, and the like. To the right, were a couple of students working on brand new iMac computers, seeming to be running simulations of something. After knocking, tenuously, I was invited in. Prof. Daly welcomed me in and explained what they were doing. A second team was located at Steeles and Dufferin, in a warehouse of sorts, and said building was more or less turned into a faux-Martian environment, complete with sand. From the site at York University, they were controlling a rover, moving it around the terrain, not only mapping it out via their on-board cameras and laser system, but they were looking for something. The team at the site had hidden a hose, spewing methane, and it was the rover's job to find it. Later, some people from the Canadian Space Agency came in and were evaluating the process.

Now, for a guy whose head is full of dreams, this reality was almost too exciting to be real! Using said enthusiasm, I dove right into things. I asked the students what they were doing, and they were more than happy to explain, and listen to any thoughts I had on their procedures. I also introduced myself to the CSA members, explaining that I was just an enthusiastic student, not actually working on the current project, but highly interested. The thing that almost always wins me over was my professor. I had two classes with him last year, Space Mission Design, and Physics of the Space Environment. I found him to be a straight-forward, to the point, exciting individual, who brought his real-life experience to the classroom, and made learning that much better. He was one of the main members of the Phoenix Lander team, and his work brought forth the LIDAR system which helped show that Mars has a seasonal cycle and that it actually snows on Mars! For more information on his current work, check this out: Prof. Mike Daly's newest mission!

So, anyway, long story short, I think he's pretty awesome and would obviously love to work with him. Back to what he was doing yesterday. So, the rover was remotely controlled by his team at York, and using a retroflector (basically a reflector), a laser, and a spectrometer, they were moving around the environment, looking for this methane. They would pick a destination, click on the map to tell the rover where to go, and using it's own obstacle detection system, it would try to find the best way to that spot. Once there, it would fire its laser at the reflector, and the rover would analyze the signal once it passed back through the air, from the reflector. It would then take overall and average readings of the air through which the laser passed, hopefully giving them the data they needed to make a rough map of the distribution of methane in the environment. It was slow going, as science tends to be, but it was interesting. In the end, their data, and their technique still needed refining, but Prof. Daly's estimate of the methane location was pretty close. What's also nice is when asked by the CSA members, who had already been to the other site and thus knew the location of the methane seep, Daly first asked the students in the room, including myself, to give our thoughts. I like this about this professor, he doesn't keep up that veil of distance, where I'm a lowly student and he's the god-like professor. I don't get it too often now that I'm in my final year, but some professors make me feel that way, and thankfully, Daly seems to actually want my thoughts, from time to time. Anyway, I gave my ideas and he agreed with my logic (yay!).

Oh, and for all you gamers out there: while the rover was being controlled by pointing and clicking on a screen, it could also be manually overridden via a pre-programmed Xbox controller! That was fun to watch.

So, sorry about the lengthy rant, verbose narrative summarized: I was invited to check out some work that a prospective graduate studies professor was working on, which involved using a moving robot to find a source of gas leakage in an "unknown" environment, and I found the experience exciting and educational. Thanks for reading, hope you had a decent time doing so.

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