Robots in Space

Scientists from NASA Ames and the Swiss Space Center reveal robotic applications for missions to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the cosmos.

Event Details


swissnex San Francisco
730 Montgomery St., San Francisco, 94111 United States


March 23, 2012 from 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm America/Los Angeles (UTC-07:00)

Scientists from NASA Ames and the Swiss Space Center reveal robotic applications for future missions to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the cosmos. Join the conversation at swissnex San Francisco and learn how robots complement human explorers by performing work autonomously and under remote supervision from Earth. A panel discussion follows the opening presentations.

Terry Fong, Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at the NASA Ames Research Center, shares how the Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG) has been developing and field testing robots inspired by lessons from the Mars Exploration Rovers as well as NASA’s human spaceflight programs, such as Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station (ISS).

Volker Gass directs the Swiss Space Center at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). He provides an overview of the center’s activities and bio-inspired robotics for space debris removal.

Vytas SunSpiral, a Senior Robotics Researcher at NASA Ames, relays his vision for so-called Smart SPHERES—planned to be small, spherical, free-flying robots that would whiz around the ISS assisting crew and providing a mobile telepresence for ground control.

Liam Pedersen explains NASA’s Planetary Lake Lander. The project is building a robotic probe to study a high altitude lake in the Chilean Andes Mountains in an area undergoing rapid change due to global warming and associated glacial retreat. The goal of the project is to both better understand the impacts of global warming and serve as a test bed for the future exploration of the lakes on Saturn’s moon, Titan.


6:30 pm   doors open
7:00 pm   presentations
8:10 pm   panel discussion
8:40 pm   reception & networking
10:00 pm  doors close


Terry Fong

Terry Fong is the Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at the NASA Ames Research Center. From 2002 to 2004, he was the deputy leader of the Virtual Reality and Active Interfaces Group at EPFL. From 1997 to 2000, he was Vice President of Development for Fourth Planet, Inc., a developer of real-time visualization software. Fong has published more than 80 papers in field robotics, human-robot interaction, virtual reality user interfaces, and parallel processing. He received his B.S. and M.S. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University (thesis work performed in Microengineering at EPFL).


Volker Gass

Volker Gass completed his master’s degree in Microtechnology at EPFL in 1989 and his Ph.D. in Applied Micro-Systems Technologies at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1994. He led Mecanex, a Swiss high-tech company active in the field of Aerospace Mechansims and, in 2004, was appointed a member of the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences for his contributions to space applications.
In 2008, Gass led the acquisition of SAAB Space and its subsidiary, Austrian Aerospace, and the following year was appointed head of Innovation and Products. He led the business team in the successful acquisition of Oerlikon Space and was responsible for Special Projects in the Marketing & Sales Organization of RUAG Space Switzerland, all the while maintaining strong ties to academia. He was closely involved with the creation of the Swiss Space Center in 2003 and was nominated Director in 2011.


Liam Pedersen

Liam Pedersen’s passion is field robotics for scientific and space exploration. He is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, where he developed the system for a robot to make the first autonomous discovery of a meteorite in Antarctica. He has worked on systems for Mars rovers to more effectively explore their surroundings and navigation systems for the next lunar rovers, and tested robotic systems in Antarctica, the Arctic, various deserts and lakes. Currently he is a senior researcher with Carnegie Mellon University in Silicon Valley, working at NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group in Mountain View, California.


Vytas SunSpiral

Vytas SunSpiral is a Senior Robotics Researcher in the Intelligent Robotics Group within the Intelligent Systems Division at NASA Ames Research Center. He is currently developing smart, free-flying robots and spacecraft as well as biologically inspired approaches to robotic systems that interact safely with humans and the environment. Recently, he led development and field-testing of the Footfall Planning Software, which enables operators to plan walking sequences over complex terrain for the ATHLETE family of six-legged lunar robots. He graduated from Stanford University in 1998 and most recently took a 1.5-year break from NASA to be the CTO of Apisphere Inc, a Berkeley-based startup that built a cloud-based system for delivering location triggered services to mobile devices.


This event is part of our Robots Among Us series and is a project of the U.S.-wide program ThinkSwiss-Brainstorm the Future. As a leading country in science, research, and technology, Switzerland is working with its American counterparts to address key global topics such as sustainability to better understand trends and arrive at solutions.



Photo: Myleen Hollero

Event Photos