Ph.D. student receives NASA research award to design strategies to enable four-legged robots to walk alongside astronauts on other planets

John Nganga

John Nganga, a Notre Dame Ph.D. student in aerospace and mechanical engineering, has been awarded a 3-year NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity (NSTGRO).

The award supports graduate students “who show significant potential to contribute to NASA’s goal of creating innovative new space technologies.”

His project “Terrain-Aware Control and Model-Driven Learning for Quadrupeds in Low Gravity,” envisions a future in which quadruped robots are partners in helping astronauts on the moon, Mars, or other planets.

“Just as on earth, where we can imagine a robot that goes into collapsed buildings to collect data to help firefighters, so we can imagine that robots that will be at the astronaut’s side on other planets,” Nganga said.

His research plan proposes ways to overcome the two major challenges for legged robots on other planets — 1) wildly varied terrain, including craters, sand, ice, and even mountains, and 2) lower gravity, which reduces traction and makes it difficult to push off from the ground.

Nganga’s proposed solutions include elements of artificial intelligence (a new control strategy), machine learning (a “library” of steps and gaits that the robot can store and recall), and new design elements (a flywheel or other appendage that works something like an animal’s tail for balance and steering).

He will conduct his research at Notre Dame during the academic year and will spend summers at a NASA facility collaborating with leading space engineers and scientists.

“John has a really exciting set of ideas — both in terms of new computational algorithms and robot design modifications — to address the challenges of robots balancing on other worlds,” said Patrick Wensing, assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering and director of the ROAM Lab.

“This NASA fellowship means John’s ideas and innovations will have maximum impact on advancing space technology.”

Nganga says he has always been interested in being part of a team “that explores the boundaries of what is possible.” He already has that at Notre Dame, and now “my next goal is to see how I can be of help to the NASA mission.”

John Nganga in ROAM Lab
Notre Dame’s MIT mini cheetah in the locomotion lab

— Joan Fallon, College of Engineering