Students get a foot in the door at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab

Ben Morrell

PhD candidate, Benjamin Morrell

April 20, 2017

Getting the chance to work at NASA's famous Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), where Mars Rovers and the first successful interplanetary spacecraft were built, is the stuff dreams are made of. But for two University of Sydney Aeronautical Engineering students it's now a dream come true.

PhD candidate, Benjamin Morrell and final year Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Aeronautical) student, Marc Rigter are both heading to California for six-month placements with the trailblazing research facility that carries out robotic space and Earth science missions.

While the students are contributing under different programs, they will both work on autonomous system projects for quadrotors, also known as drones. They will look into ways to improve how drones fly, navigate and maneuver around obstacles.

Benjamin Morrell's work at JPL will feed into his PhD thesis on simultaneous localisation and mapping for unmanned aerial vehicles. This focuses on the way drones can use landmarks to orientate themselves and map areas to plan a safe pathway. His PhD work to date in 3D mapping and path planning will be used by JPL to help the quadrotors work faster and more efficiently. This kind of research could be used in a disaster zone, allowing a drone to map out the damaged area and find injured people.

"JLP is the ultimate place for an Australian to work if you're interested in space", Ben said. "They're innovative, move at a fast pace and push the boundaries of technology in order to extend what we know about science."

Marc Rigter

Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Aeronautical) fourth-year student, Marc Rigter

"At JPL I'll get the chance to work with the people who drive Mars Rovers and the people sending spacecraft to Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and beyond – it's going to be amazing!"

Fourth-year student, Marc Rigter is finishing the last few months of his undergraduate degree at JPL as part of the Sydney Industry Project Placement Scholarship (SIPPS) program, which means his time at JPL will count towards the industry experience required of all engineering degrees, and he'll also receive a scholarship as part of his placement.

Marc is looking forward to working on quadrotor technology to improve the capability and efficiency of drone navigation systems. "They make 'smart' decisions as they fly, maneuvering around sharp turns and navigating in areas where GPS isn't available", he said. "I love working with new technology and thinking of how to apply it in new and useful ways, which is what JPL is all about."

This isn't the first time Marc has been able to apply what he's learnt through his studies in the real world; he's worked on projects like modifying autopilot programming for drones and has worked with Benjamin Morrell on trajectory planning for space robots. In second year he undertook an internship at Thomas Global Systems who specialise in avionic display systems and also completed work experience last year with NASA's Ames Research Center in San Francisco.

With their go-to person at JPL a Robotics Engineer from Australia, there will at least be a few familiar faces amongst the 6000 engineers and scientists and 800 interns who innovate, explore and test their skills at this renowned research lab each year.

If you're interested in all the interesting avenues space has to offer, the University of Sydney offers a Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Aeronautical) , as well a Bachelor of Engineering Honours with a space engineering major.