Lithua­nian works on new-gen­er­a­tion mav­er­ick Mars ro­bot

The Baltic Times - - Q&A - Li­nas Jegele­vi­cius

For Povi­las Piartli, a NASA (Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion) in­tern from Lithua­nia’s Kau­nas Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, the moon, stars and be­yond are just way closer than for us here. Hav­ing cho­sen the stud­ies of mecha­tron­ics, the as­pir­ing ro­bot­ics wizard wants to get the most from his in­tern­ship in Sil­i­con Val­ley be­fore set­ting off for glo­be­trot­ting in search of a spot to make his dreams come true. The Baltic Times spoke to Piartli about his space en­deav­ors.

Why did you choose stud­ies of mecha­tron­ics? By the way, what is it all about? What do you find so fas­ci­nat­ing about it?

Well, I had a hard time choos­ing what to study - I did not want to go fully to IT and I wanted to learn some me­chan­ics. Elec­tron­ics was also in­ter­est­ing, so I chose mecha­tron­ics- a hy­brid of me­chan­ics and elec­tron­ics. Most peo­ple un­der­stand­ably don't know what mecha­tron­ics is all about - the eas­i­est way to ex­plain is that it's sim­i­lar to ro­bot­ics, but wider: ro­bot­ics is a sub­cat­e­gory of mecha­tron­ics. What I find fas­ci­nat­ing about it is that with this knowl­edge you can cre­ate any de­vice, be­cause any mod­ern gadget con­tains a mecha­tron­i­cal sys­tem. As a study field, mecha­tron­ics also al­lows you to im­merse your­self in it by do­ing projects very early - in my case, I started work­ing on them the first semester by mak­ing a light-seek­ing ro­bot.

How in­spir­ing for a stu­dent from a tiny coun­try like Lithua­nia is the pos­si­bil­ity to ex­pe­ri­ence first­hand from NASA?

I would say that the most im­por­tant thing that I’ve learned is that the peo­ple at NASA are not some ex­tra­or­di­nary ge­niuses – in fact, we could make sim­i­lar gad­gets in any coun­try. What is the dif­fer­ence? The fund­ing. In the US and some other high­tech coun­tries, they are given funds for their re­search and a de­cent wage - you don't have to worry about the liv­ing costs. For ex­am­ple, the ro­bot that is one of a few projects in my lab, con­tains 24 mo­tors, each cost­ing 3,000 dol­lars. This al­lows the team to progress fur­ther, in­stead of break­ing the project in parts and de­sign­ing your own mo­tors with sen­sors and con­trols.

What se­lec­tion had you been through be­fore snatch­ing the NASA in­vi­ta­tion?

The se­lec­tion was or­ga­nized by Lithua­nia’s Agency for Sci­ence, In­no­va­tion and Tech­nol­ogy, MITA, and it took up four stages, with NASA or­gan­is­ing the last stage.

How unique is the robotto-be-turned into-a- Mar­tian-ex­plorer that you’re work­ing on? What can it do bet­ter than its Mar­tian pre­de­ces­sors?

Well, to be­gin with, it does not have any wheels, it is sphere shaped and it rolls on the sur­face by changing its form. The main ad­van­tage of us­ing the tenseg­rity struc­ture is that the ro­bot is a lot more ro­bust, and the goal is to just be able to drop it down from or­bit on some low grav­ity body - no para­chutes, no retro-burn­ers, no airbags are needed for it. You just drop it and it sur­vives the harsh land­ing.

How does your or­di­nary day in Sil­i­con Val­ley look?

Not re­ally dif­fer­ent from my life at home. I go to my work­place at about 10AM, be­cause there is no strict sched­ule, I have lunch at noon and leave at 6PM. I’m used to stay­ing in the fa­cil­ity un­til about 9PM or 10PM – it takes me only four min­utes to get from the lab­o­ra­tory to my bed.

Was there any­thing in the re­search fa­cil­i­ties that caught you off guard?

I guess the strangest thing was the se­cu­rity - ev­ery time we en­ter the ter­ri­tory we have to show our id and vis­i­tor pass. Also, they have a lot of se­cu­rity train­ing - if you buy some equip­ment that could be used to harm some­one, you have to fill in se­cu­rity pro­to­cols, which might be a bit too crazy some­times.

Do you be­lieve in life on Mars, on some of the satel­lites of Jupiter and be­yond our so­lar sys­tem?

Talk­ing about Mars, I don’t think we will find any­thing still alive there, how­ever Europa (a satel­lite of Jupiter) might have a bet­ter chance, be­cause it con­tains a lot of liq­uid wa­ter. How­ever, there still is a ques­tion of nu­tri­tion sources there, which leads to an­other ma­jor ques­tions: are they suf­fi­cient for a life­form to ex­ist there? So, in a way, there is only way to find out it – go there, drill the ice and check what lies (lives?) be­low it.

Do you think ad­vanced in­tel­li­gence in outer space poses more risks or op­por­tu­ni­ties for hu­mankind? When do you be­lieve we will hit the jack­pot and make the first in­ter­plan­e­tary con­tact?

Well, there def­i­nitely are in­tel­li­gent life forms out there – the ques­tion is whether they are close or far away, and do they still ex­ist there, or have they al­ready died or maybe they are just be­ing born, or maybe there are all of those op­tions in dif­fer­ent places in space.

In terms of risks or op­por­tu­ni­ties, it re­ally de­pends on the life form - is it a war­mon­ger, or not. The stronger will win (in the in­ter­plan­e­tary bat­tle) – I’d not be sur­prised if us, hu­mans, would win, con­sid­er­ing our his­tory of wars and the nu­clear arsenal we pos­sess. The sit­u­a­tion would be a whole lot more dan­ger­ous if the aliens had an an­ti­mat­ter bomb, or pos­sessed weaponry that is of a com­pletely dif­fer­ent scale and power, un­heard of to hu­mans. Where we def­i­nitely are be­hind is in the lack of proper trans­porta­tion -to get our bombs to enemy ter­ri­tory.

The op­por­tu­ni­ties from con­tact with benev­o­lent aliens in­clude new im­mense sci­en­tific knowl­edge, new ways of entertainment, and a dra­matic shake-up of our un­der­stand­ing how the uni­verse ex­ists.

The in­ter­plan­e­tary con­tact is re­ally like a jack­pot even - if we de­tect some ra­dio or light sig­nals out there, they likely have trav­eled for many light years, and it would take them just as much to get a re­ply from us. How­ever, if we find some other method to com­mu­ni­cate, such as quan­tum com­mu­ni­ca­tion, it would stand a bet­ter chance. Due to these rea­sons, I would say any com­mu­ni­ca­tion is not likely to hap­pen soon un­less we dis­cover some­thing com­pletely new.

In­stead of leav­ing for stud­ies abroad af­ter grad­u­a­tion from sec­ondary school, you opted for a quite av­er­age Lithua­nian Univer­sity, Kau­nas Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy? Why?

Any good, big-name univer­si­ties would re­quire me to pay for stud­ies, or their cour­ses would be in a for­eign lan­guage. I did not want to go too far from my grand­par­ents - I grew up with them - con­sid­er­ing they might need my help, so I chose be­tween Kau­nas Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy and Vil­nius Ged­im­i­nas Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity. The de­cid­ing fac­tors ended up be­ing on Kau­nas’ side – they of­fered me a pro­gram in English and their cam­pus is con­cen­trated in one place. Said that, I can­not deny that I did want to go away from home, how­ever, I am re­solved to get most of my Kau­nas stud­ies.

I bet most of your for­mer sec­ondary school class­mates left Lithua­nia, didn’t they?

They ac­tu­ally did, to be more pre­cise, al­most ev­ery­one who could speak at least some English, has left.

Those who did not speak enough English to be able to ap­ply to study abroad, ended up study­ing in Lithua­nia. I would say that about one third of my for­mer class­mates are abroad.

What im­pres­sion have you got­ten of Sil­i­con Val­ley? Does it look like an outof-the-world place?

It ac­tu­ally looks like just a nor­mal town with some big­ger of­fice build­ings. One slight ex­cep­tion is NASA’S AMES Re­search Cen­ter - it looks like a 1950 mil­i­tary base and it was ac­tu­ally used as a naval mil­i­tary base.

The big­gest dif­fer­ence from most Lithua­nian towns is that ev­ery­thing there is built with car own­ers in mind -the roads are also a lot big­ger than what we are used to in Lithua­nia. Also, due to the large amount of high in­come work­ers, there are a lot of ex­pen­sive cars, so see­ing a few Corvettes, Lam­borgh­i­nis, or Porsches one be­hind the other, is an ev­ery­day sight.

Did you meet any Lithua­ni­ans there?

I only met some other in­terns, how­ever, in my lab there is an Ital­ian and Mol­da­vian and the pre­vi­ous lead of our project was of Lithua­nian an­ces­try.

An­other Lithua­nian in­tern I know found a Lithua­nian work­ing full-time in his lab.

For many, NASA is all about space ex­plo­ration in our so­lar sys­tem. When do you reckon NASA will start criss­cross­ing other so­lar sys­tems?

It all de­pends on po­lit­i­cal will- if we re­ally want to criss­cross our so­lar sys­tem or any­thing fur­ther. To be able to do it, we need new types of en­gines - the cur­rent chem­i­cal en­gines have their lim­its and we are very close to them. So, we need some­thing much more pow­er­ful - nu­clear en­er­gy­which scares a lot of peo­ple. With NASA be­ing an agency which re­lies on po­lit­i­cal sup­port, the switch is un­likely to come soon. I am ex­pect­ing more from the Chi­nese in terms of space con­quest, be­cause of their dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment struc­ture and their over­all at­ti­tude in terms of sci­ence. But the US might change its stance when China starts step­ping in that di­rec­tion. If we re­ally wanted to get some­where and were will­ing to ac­cept risks, we could do it in 10 years or so, sim­i­lar to the moon race. If not, it will take a long time.

Where do you see your fu­ture? In Lithua­nia? Or per­haps NASA?

To be­gin with, I may not be deemed a pa­tri­otic per­son, as I grew up go­ing back and forth be­tween coun­tries- my first 6 years I spent in Rus­sia, and then I moved to Lithua­nia. I don’t ex­pect to stay in Lithua­nia, how­ever, I have some ideas about set­ting up my own com­pany and sell­ing my own ro­bots which I see be­ing sold world­wide - I don’t ex­pect any­one in Lithua­nia to buy them. How­ever, the pro­duc­tion could be done in Lithua­nia, as long as the laws would set lim­its on the man­u­fac­tur­ing amount.

I will be trav­el­ling as an ex­change stu­dent to China for a semester af­ter my NASA in­tern­ship is com­pleted to see how life is there. On the other hand, to work at NASA prob­a­bly wouldn’t be what I want, be­cause of the cur­rent stag­na­tion in hu­man space travel, for ex­am­ple. Be­cause of the un­cer­tainty, I’m cur­rently trav­el­ing around the world check­ing out coun­tries in search of in­ter­est­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Do you be­lieve the fund­ing young ta­lented sci­en­tists and re­searchers can count on here are enough to keep them in Lithua­nia?

No, not at all. In terms of fund­ing, we have a big prob­lem in Lithua­nia, be­cause, if I wanted to live nor­mally off a re­searcher’s wage, it would not be pos­si­ble. Un­less the sit­u­a­tion changes, I do not ex­pect many stu­dents choos­ing the path of a re­searcher in Lithua­nia.

Na­tional se­lec­tions for in­tern­ship at NASA are or­gan­ised and fi­nanced by the Sci­ence, In­no­va­tion and Tech­nol­ogy Agency(mita). In­tern­ships are spon­sored with fund­ing from the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion and Sci­ence.

Povi­las Piartli is a NASA in­tern from Lithua­nia’s Kau­nas Univer­sity of­tech­nol­ogy

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