Hybrid Automaton Rover for Venus with Jonathan Sauder


Jonathan Sauder is  the Deputy Manager, Office of Technology Infusion at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and the Principal Investigator of a NASA project to design a rover for the surface of Venus.

The Hybrid Automaton Rover – Venus (HAR-V), is a mission concept which would replace vulnerable and complex electronic systems with a robust, mechanical approach. By utilizing high temperature alloys and a new concept of operations, the rover could survive for months, allowing it to collect and return valuable long-term science data from the surface of Venus.


Jonathan Sauder: Huge pleasure to be on the podcast with you.

Elisa Muñoz: So why don't we start this conversation by hearing about your experience and what you have been doing lately.

Jonathan Sauder: Cool. So yeah, the highlight project that I've been working on is looking at how we send a Rover to Venus. And that is a big challenge because Venus is super, super hot on the surface of the planet, nearly 800, over 800 degrees Fahrenheit, or 462 degrees Celsius, which means most electronic components that we're used to don't work at those temperatures. In fact, paper would spontaneously combust on the surface of Venus. It's so hot. If there was enough oxygen there.

Elisa Muñoz: Wow. Really interesting. And I was reading some article about it and I heard that the Russians already tried going, but it didn't work. So what was the initial motivation? Why Venus?

Jonathan Sauder: So yeah, actually the Russians have successfully landed on Venus, but the longest they lasted was an hour and 20 minutes. Now I should note that was actually, you know, an incredible amount of time for the technology that they had at the time and actually surpassed their mission goals by quite a bit as well, but basically to date pretty much all the Venus missions that land on the surface are limited in time. And basically you just wait until you've got some that's 450 degrees Celsius or in 60 degrees Celsius outside, you just have to wait until you get to that temperature.

And once you get to that temperature, your electronics overheat and shut down and things stop working. So we wanted to look at building an alternate Rover that could survive and even thrive in those conditions.

Elisa Muñoz: Wow. And what would be the other option? If the electronics do not work there, something mechanical?

Jonathan Sauder: Right. So we initially went into the approach of let's build an all mechanical steampunk Rover. Basically let's take a strong base, which can I think, see you're right up there. Actually, it was one of our inspirations and thought, wait, this is really cool because there's something that, you know, is entirely mechanical and responds to the environment. You know, when there's danger that occurs, either wind speeds are too high, it can pound a stake in to keep itself fixed solid in the sand, or as it walks into the ocean, which is the danger zone for it, it can detect that and go in the opposite direction. And we were thinking, could we take the same concept that is being done on the beach of the Netherlands, built out of PVC and wind powered and do the same thing on a, but make it out of high temperature metals.

So that was where the initial seed of the idea started for us. And when we started to dig into it and design a system, we started to come up with a system that was doing everything mechanically from the science instruments to everything. Now, as we started to dig into the research, we realized there's actually been a lot of great work being done currently at NASA JPL on high temperature electronics made out of Silicon carbide and gallium nitride.

The challenge with those electronics is their level of computational complexity is about that of a solar powered calculator. So those electronics can survive the 450 degrees Celsius, but they're both very power hungry and they're sort of big and bulky. And because of that, you can't get to very high levels of integration compared to other standard electronics. So we're going from, you know, what we have currently technologically and back to sort of, how do you build a Rover that could run off the level of processing power of a solar powered calculator. And that's sort of what started us into the hybrid automaton Rover Venus design.

Elisa Muñoz: And how many people are currently working on the project or how long has this been going on?

Jonathan Sauder: So it's been a pretty small team here at JPL. It's been about myself and two to three other full-time people are full-time engineers here. And several interns who've been collaborating with us and we've been working on this on and off for about the last five years. One of the things that we're constantly, you know, challenged with like any sort of NASA project that initially starts out is funding cycles, right? And you have times where you get funding and you're working on it, and then you have to sort of apply for the next round of funding to keep raising what we call the technology readiness level eventually to a point where we can propose the full on mission to NASA.

So right now we're sort of developing and sort of proving the proof of concept and as we get opportunities to do so we're pushing the technology forward eventually where one day we hope to propose that mission and get a mission out there for a future opportunity.

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Elisa Muñoz: That leads me to the second question, How is the transmission, like, how does that part works because that needs electrical engineering, right?

Jonathan Sauder: Correct. Yes. So that's where you use the high temperature Silicon carbide electronics. So there's some folks at NASA Glenn right now who are actually developing for this a mission called Lucy, which is basically a weather station that is, you know, sort of a small weather station that would sit on the surface of Venus. And there's a lot of technologies being developed for that, that we could then use on the Rover once that is fully developed and demonstrated. So that's currently still, something that's being developed and proven out by NASA Glenn. And along with that, they're developing a high-temperature Silicon carbide transmitter that would be able to transmit information off an object on the surface of Venus. Now, the approach that we'd be using for this is a lot simpler than what current state missions operate.

We're basically what you do is you'd be cycling through various scientific information and continuously transmitting the results. So basically you're just sort of going through here are the different things we're observing, and we're just sort of reporting on what we are observing and then you repeat that cycle every several hours or so. And basically just, you're sort of constantly changing what instruments you're reporting on. And the idea there is you're making the logic very simple so that you don't have to have very much complexity because you're really limited at the computational capability of those high temperature electronics that exists, but, you know, sort of summarize what Harvey does and what we've done with Harvey.

You just sort of divided  the Rover into two systems. We have the mechanical system, which does a lot of the power management, taking the Venus wind in and labeling us, doing the mobility, finding obstacles, and figuring out how to safely move around the surface of Venus. And then we have the electronic system, which is mostly scientific data. So sort of in an observe and report mode. And that's also collecting information and reporting it to an overhead satellite, as far as what we're seeing and what we're observing as we go through the venous environment.

Elisa Muñoz: Are there any critical challenges that you have faced when it comes to the procurement process while building it?

Jonathan Sauder: So I guess maybe not a whole lot for the procurement process, actually, one of the really cool things we were able to do in this technology development, which was a really cool take on procuring ideas for the technology is we were able to run a price challenge, to look at new, innovative ideas for how we could detect obstacles. We need to have a mechanical obstacle detection device. And so, and you know, I had an, I had a team of, you know, very few engineers at JPL here. So we could come up with like one or two ideas on our own, but they probably wouldn't have been the best idea.

So what we realized is the best thing to do is sort of crowd sources and get a bunch of great ideas on this. It sort of gives you a way of failing early and failing often on a bunch of different concepts by doing a price challenge, you're getting a bunch of people involved. The other thing that's interesting too, is it's very hard with the way government funding is set up is for us to procure ideas from outside of the U S it's easy to set up a contract with a vendor in the U S but setting up a contract with vendors outside of the U S require a lot of extra paperwork and a lot of extra challenge, but with doing a crowdsource challenge, there's sort of a shortcut around that where you can get ideas from all around the globe. So we were able to set up this prize challenge.

And over the course of five months, we had an online forum where we had over a thousand interactions with different people working on these concepts. And we ended up coming up with five really great, really unique ideas from Egypt, Latvia, Australia. The United team demands the U S of course, too, that we're able to contribute ideas to this, to help us solve. How do we detect obstacles in new ways? So that was a really cool, innovative way to go about procuring a set of ideas for it. Give us the initial ideas and sort of crowd sourced innovation in this to get around a really hard challenge. And it's awesome now, because now these people have made a contribution to this mission concept, right? That will continue to live on in this mission idea as it moves forward, which is incredible. I should note NASA has an active price challenge program.

So while this challenge for the Venus Rover is over, if anybody out there listening to this podcast is interested in contributing ideas that future NASA missions look up NASA prizes and challenges. And there's usually a few ongoing price challenges throughout the time where you're a tinker or garage inventor, or even a small engineering company. You may want to take a look at that and see what ideas you can contribute. And maybe you'd win a little bit of money if your idea is successful. And if nothing else, you get to have a fun time working on a hard NASA problem.

Elisa Muñoz: Do you have any advice for anyone who is interested in the space industry or in the robotics field, or, you know, maybe you just want to be an intern at the JPL?

Jonathan Sauder: Of course, We love to see people who have hands-on experience and love to tinker and build things. So the more opportunities you have to build things, whether that's, you know, in an extreme example, you could go work on a NASA pride challenge, but other examples too, either at your university or with local clubs or hobbyists, if you'd like to work on cars or fix up houses or build your own inventions, those are all things that are really helpful and build a great skillset as an engineer to show that not only do you have the theory and the educational background to solve problems, but you also have the ability to apply that practically.

And that's what we're looking for. And a lot of people, I guess, more generically too, one of the big traits I see across engineers at JPL is persistence and hard work, not being afraid of showing up and doing the hard work and being willing to persistently work at a problem despite whatever obstacles you face because in space, space is hard and there are tons of obstacles. So you need to persevere to get through it.

Elisa Muñoz: Well this was amazing Jonathan. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

Jonathan Sauder: Awesome. Thank you for the opportunity.

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