Riley Avron, working as an intern with NASA engineers training this summer to drive the Mars rover Curiosity, noted the slow progress caused by their having to spend several minutes entering arcane code into their computers before every maneuver.
So Avron solved the problem by whipping up a custom-designed iPhone app that makes driving a one-ton robot as easy as a toy remote control car, a Purdue release reported Friday.
"They were spending so much time with their face buried in a computer that they couldn't pay attention to the rover's progress through the simulated Mars landscape -- the real reason they were out there," Avron said. "With the iPhone it was quick and easy, and they could really learn what the rover was capable of doing."
Avron has returned to Purdue from his internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to pursue his studies, but JPL engineers still use his app regularly to drive Curiosity's earthbound twin Scarecrow through tough maneuvers on a simulated Mars landscape.
"If the scientists want Curiosity to go through a crater, over a rock or along a ridge, then engineers absolutely have to know if it can do it without rolling over or getting stuck," Avron said. "After all, there's no AAA tow truck to call for help up on Mars."