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Robotics work leads researcher from Turkey to NASA


Published Jun 14, 2013

Like many international students, Alper Aydemir was expected to return home after graduation. But an offer from NASA led to a change in plans.

A researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology’s Computer Vision and Active Perception Lab (CVAP), Aydemir officially begins work June 17 at NASA’s Los Angeles research facility. He will begin work in the field where he conducted his doctoral research - robotic perception.

Alper Aydemir

While many PhD students move on to post-doc projects after graduation, Aydemir is instead seizing on a unique opportunity – a permanent position with the world’s leading space agency. His assignment came just weeks after defending his doctoral thesis in robotics.

Aydemir will be one of few foreign nationals on the NASA payroll, since the agency seldom hires non-U.S. citizens. He will also be farther from home than his family in Turkey had originally expected.

”They thought I would come back after I finished my master’s degree,” Aydemir says. “But they have gradually come to change their minds. Now they appreciate what an opportunity this is.”

Aydemir’s connection with NASA stem from his attendance at robotics conferences, including the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) held in Alaska. In Alaska, another PhD student presented a paper that contained numerous references to Aydemir’s supervisor, Patric Jensfelt. Aydemir introduced himself and Jensfelt to the PhD student, who subsequently went to work at NASA. Later, while returning to Sweden from another conference in San Francisco, Aydemir arranged for a visit to NASA.

He returned to NASA in October 2012 for a 12-hour interview, carried out the morning after a long-haul flight from Sweden. He says the interviewers at NASA knew about his involvement with the Kinect project at KTH, a project that involved creating a database of mapped everyday spaces and objects that could help robots learn to navigate human environments.

One benefit of working at NASA is that he can choose which projects to work on. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) regularly announces “grand challenges”, technological challenges that have previously yielded innovations such as autonomous cars. Two DARPA challenges that Aydemir is considering include the “robotics challenge” and the “arm challenge”.

”The robotics challenge aims at producing a humanoid (human-like robot) to work in hazardous environments, for example to simulate what happened in Fukushima during the nuclear disaster or different tasks in space,” Aydemir says, adding that going out in space is not as safe as one might think.

Aydemir is looking forward to starting at NASA, but he maintains a down-to-earth perspective on matters.

”Some people think that working for NASA means that you go straight to working with space. But in fact the robots over there are very similar to those in the lab here,” he says. “It has a camera and two arms and we want to try to teach it to do things similarly to humans.”

Emma Bayne