Robot Builder, JPL

Ryan McCormick tests robot gripper concepts for a Mars mission in the Planetary Robotics Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The robot (at right) likes its job too. (JPL-Caltech/ Russell Smith)
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In 2020, a robot will launch to Mars to look for life and test technologies that humans may use there. Ryan McCormick is helping to design that robot.

The job: Design a robotic arm for Mars 2020 that will work in a variety of situations that might be encountered on Mars. Also: design a robotic arm for a potential mission that would load the samples cached by Mars 2020 into a rocket for return to Earth.

Typical day: No such thing. Some days he designs at a computer. Other days he builds robots in the lab and evaluates them in the test area, which simulates a Martian landscape. “I just realized I spend the day playing in a big sandbox with robots,” he says.

The path: As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, McCormick and fellow students built an autonomous hovercraft that cruised the hallways. That got him hooked on robotics. Grad school led to work making miniature surgical robots, a project funded by NASA and the Army. Controlled remotely, the robots could be used in long-term spaceflight, or carried by a medic onto the battlefield. After graduation, McCormick worked for a defense company designing miniature robotic tanks that could roll in front of soldiers and destroy IEDs.

Advice:  Enter robotics competitions, learn programming, and do as many hands-on projects you can. One thing made McCormick stand out from the crowd during his JPL interview: “Just for fun, I wrote a program that allowed me to open and close my house blinds through my smartphone. They were impressed by that.”

—Rebecca Maksel

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