Meet Vandi Verma, the roboticist who drove the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover

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Roboticist at NASA, Vandana ‘Vandi’ Verma, just one hour before the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover landing on Feb. 18, 2021. Photo: Twitter

Vandana “Vandi” Verma is the Chief Engineer for Robotic Operations for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, the largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent to another world touched down on Mars Feb.18, after a 203-day traversing 293 million miles.

“We are looking for signs of ancient microbial life because that is an ancient delta where the rover landed,” Verma is quoted saying in an interview Feb. 19, 2021, the day after the landing, on msn.com.

She said they would be able to return the samples collected and brought back by another mission. Some of the technologies that will be used to study those samples have not even been invented yet.

Verma who is an assistant section manager for Mobility and Robotics Systems at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is known for driving the Mars rovers, notably Curiosity and Perseverance, using software including PLEXIL programming technology that she co-wrote and developed.

“No matter how many times you’ve had software you designed and coded run on Mars, the first few times on a new rover is pretty special. I’m sure many robotics and software enthusiasts can relate to that first execution joy. Was nice to be Rover Planner as well for Mars execution,” Verma said in a tweet.

She specializes in space robotics, autonomous robots and robotic operations. She has worked on a number of Space Robotics and Artificial Intelligence research and technology development tasks and has designed, developed, and operated rovers on Mars, the Arctic, Antarctica, and the Atacama Desert.

Vandi Verma is an Assistant Section Manager for Mobility and Robotics Systems at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo: Twitter

Born in Halwara, India, Verma grew up around airplanes; her father was a pilot in the Indian Air Force. She was always fascinated with learning everything she could about space and aviation. Verma got her Bachelors in electrical engineering from Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh.

“NASA does tremendous educational outreach that inspires kids everywhere. I decided to come to the U.S. on a university merit scholarship,” Verma is quoted saying in her profile on NASA’s website.

She says she was blown away by the Sojourner rover from the Mars Pathfinder mission, which eventually led her to take a mobile robot programming class at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). She gained masters in robotics followed by a Ph.D. in the same field with a thesis entitled Tractable Particle Filters for Robot Fault Diagnosis.

“I loved experimenting with the theory we learned and my robot ended up winning the autonomous robot competition. By the end of it, I was pretty sure that there was nothing I’d rather be working on than robots exploring space. I applied my thesis work to a number of space robotics research projects,” she adds.

At CMU Verma was involved in a 3-year astrobiology experimental station in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The desert was chosen because of the similarities between its hostile environment and the surface of Mars, according to a 2019 article by the university.

Verma then interned with NASA collaborators and started working there full time soon after graduation. She works on new capabilities from early design, through development, testing and launch, to landing and surface operations.

In 2007 Verma joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with a special interest in robotics and flight software.

She started driving rovers on Mars and operating the robotic arm and sampling system as a Rover Planner, in 2008.

Verma says she enjoys coding and has written flight software that runs onboard Curiosity and Perseverance, and simulation software used in operations.

As chief engineer for robotic operations her role is to provide technical leadership for operating the robotics on Perseverance.

As Assistant Section Manager for Mobility and Robotics Verma helps lead about 150 JPL roboticists developing new technology for future missions and working on a variety of JPL robotic missions.

“In my role as flight software developer I design and program new capability such as the Rover Collision Modeling capability that will enable the rover to deploy the robotic arm on a target itself,” she says in her profile.

Between studies, Verma became a licensed pilot. In her free time she can be found flying an airplane to Castle AFB to see the SR-71, backpacking the John Muir Trail or climbing the Royal Arches in Yosemite.

Verma believes diversity and inclusion in STEM are important. She said, “Diversity encourages young people from a variety of different backgrounds to enter STEM allowing us to reach the best and propagate a culture of exceptional teams. The most creative, out-of-the-box thinking teams I’ve been part of consist of people with varied experiences and different perspectives who value that diversity.”

 

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