Edward Tunstel: Space Robotics Expert

A look at the space robotics expert's career, which included work on the Mars rovers

7 June 2011

People often ask IEEE Senior Member Edward Tunstel if he has ever seen signs of extraterrestrial life in his line of work. Tunstel, space robotics and autonomous control lead at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md., says his answer is no—so far, that is. He has, however, seen plenty of space robots.

Tunstel has spent more than 20 years researching and developing technology for semiautonomous robots used by NASA to explore the surfaces of solar system bodies, including Mars, the moon, and asteroids.

He recently explained his robotics work during a panel discussion at the Color of Science, an event sponsored by the HistoryMakers—an archival project documenting the achievements of African Americans who have made significant contributions to science, technology, literature, and other areas.

The panel, held in February at the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, attracted about 600 attendees. The event was designed to expose young people to career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Tunstel told the audience that self-motivation, a knack for problem solving, and a curiosity about how gadgets work helped get him where he is today, despite having limited exposure to engineering as a child.

Some of the robots Tunstel has helped design have boldly gone where no human has gone before. As flight systems engineer for Mars rover navigation at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, Calif., Tunstel was on the team responsible for designing and testing software that gave the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, semiautonomous capabilities for navigating their own routes through the rugged terrain to their targets. From 2004 to 2007, he led the team responsible for tracking the robotic performance of the rovers, which had been sent to comb the surface of the Red Planet for signs of water.

Every sol—the Martian day—Tunstel analyzed how well they performed the previous day's tasks. He also collaborated with other scientists to program a command sequence that would instruct the rovers where to go and what to do on the following day.

One of the most rewarding parts of the job, Tunstel says, was being "the first or one of the first people to view images and data transmitted by the rovers as they drove to different locations on Mars." Among the data were measurements of Martian rocks whose chemical composition was found to have been altered by water—leading to the conclusion that Mars once had surface water.

Although Tunstel admits there are many challenges ahead, he believes humans will be able to visit Mars, "perhaps within our lifetime." If given the opportunity to visit the planet, he says he would rather stay right here on Earth, though. "I am content with seeing the planet through the eyes of robotic systems, and eventually, through the eyes of the first human visitors."

After several years of exploration, Spirit stopped working in March 2010. Although Opportunity continues to roam the planet, Tunstel has moved on to other projects. He now works as a senior staff member at APL's Space Department, where he continues to research and develop robotic technology for NASA surface missions.

Tunstel didn't always dream of space exploration. As a youngster growing up in New York City, he had other plans.

"I had nontechnical aspirations—namely sports," he says. "But when I realized that I had an affinity for analytical thinking and a healthy curiosity about the way things worked, I began to be drawn to technical things."

He became interested in art at an early age, sketching designs with an eye toward becoming an architect. But a panel discussion he attended as a teenager at the New York Academy of Sciences, in New York City, led him in a new direction. As he listened to engineers and architects talk about their careers, he says, engineering seemed to speak more directly to his analytical side and piqued his curiosity about "how contraptions worked."

Tunstel was first turned on to robotics, or what he calls "art in motion," after taking a course as an engineering student at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from Howard in 1986 and 1989, respectively. In 1996 he earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque.

His master's thesis on computer modeling of automated robotic arms got the attention of JPL, and the lab recruited him in 1989 to join its Robotic Intelligence Group, where he started out supporting R&D for NASA planetary rover projects. In 2007 he joined APL, where he has focused on expanding a new area within the lab that is dedicated to developing robotics for exploring planetary and asteroid surfaces.

Many budding robotics engineers have reached out to Tunstel after meeting him at conferences or listening to him doing radio and TV interviews. He makes it a point to keep in touch with them via e-mail, offering encouragement, guidance, and occasionally even helping them with their homework.

"By reaching out and making myself available," he says, "I hope to help students overcome small obstacles to keep them going rather than giving up on engineering."

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