Working on robotics with NASA

I stayed as a Fulbright visiting scholar at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, from September to December 2012. It has been a great opportunity for me to spend time in this world-leading research laboratory, with highly skilled scientists in the disciplines of computer science and robotics. Managed by California Institute of Technology, JPL counts more than 5000 employees. It is currently most famous for the Mars rover Curiosity, built at and controlled from JPL. While the laboratory is only a 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Los Angeles, I had a feeling of being close to nature; meeting deer wandering around the campus in the mornings, and taking a run in the evenings along a river trail just outside the gates.

I stayed in the Advanced Robotics Control group, where the research focus was human-robot interaction through various forms of interfaces, such as skin-based muscle and brain signal sensing. I worked mainly on the interpretation of muscle signals in a wearable interface which could be used in space suits for giving commands to machines and robots, but the same technology could also be applied to prosthetic hand control for amputees. I have gained a lot of insight into the field and the methodologies used, which will be useful for my future research.

I got the opportunity to meet and discuss with top researchers, and there have also been a high number of visitors to the laboratory who have shared their knowledge. This has given me insight into a wide area of robotics research, beyond my own project. I also have an impression that the Fulbright Scholar status helped attract interest to my own research, allowing me to present my work for people outside my host group. During my stay I got to know Americans and American work culture, but being in an international environment I have also met and built ties with researchers of other nationalities, ranging from Norway to as far away as Japan. The atmosphere at work was informal, and I also had the opportunity to meet my colleagues in several social gatherings after work.

I stayed with my family in Monrovia which, while being a city in the L.A. area, had a considerable small-town and community feel. Everything was within walking distance (which is unusual for car-based L.A.), people were friendly, and we soon got to know people from the area. The mountains were just five minutes away, with lots of possibilities for hiking trips. It was practical to have this friendly town as a base for everyday life, while exploring beach towns, hip L.A. neighborhoods and wine regions in the weekends. The weather was excellent throughout the stay, even in December it was possible to sit in a sidewalk café wearing t-shirts and shorts.

In all, my Fulbright experience has broadened my horizon on a professional level as well as culturally, and it has inspired me to do further international exchange and collaboration.