Boeing Engineering Student of the Year 2013
Graduate Winner - Brent Tweddle
Specialist goggles allow satellites to ‘see’ moving objects
Brent Tweddle, a PhD candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Space Systems Laboratory, has spent the last five years leading a project to design and build a pair of eyes that will enable the SPHERES satellites on board the International Space Station to see moving objects, such as asteroids and disabled satellites.
His efforts paid off earlier this year when the VERTIGO (visual estimation and relative tracking for inspection of generic objects) goggles made their way to the ISS, where astronaut Tom Marshburn installed them under direct space-to-ground instruction from Tweddle.
“To see it go from a back of the napkin design to building it and training astronauts on it has been a huge thrill,” says Tweddle, adding that when the goggles were launched into space from Kazakhstan “we were crossing all our fingers and toes”.
Tweddle won this year’s Boeing Engineering Student of the Year award at graduate level in recognition of his “truly exceptional academic, research and professional skills”, said the judges. “Brent led the development of a robotic research system that has successfully operated aboard the ISS, demonstrating use of new vision-based algorithms never before tested in space.”
This years winner Brent Tweddle
His work includes a number of “space-firsts” which could eventually be used to learn more about asteroids and to repair failed satellites. “The algorithmic contribution of Brent’s PhD thesis enables simultaneous localisation and mapping algorithms to work for tumbling and spinning objects in a space environment, a novel and significant addition to the current state of the art of these algorithms,” said the Boeing judges.
Winning the award is “a huge honour”, says Tweddle, who is one month away from finishing his PhD. “Recognition goes a fair way – it helps to validate that you’re doing stuff other people think is important.”
Tweddle has already been offered, and has accepted, a position as a guidance and control engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he will work on hazard avoidance and landing systems for the 2020 Mars Rover. He will take up his new role in February 2014.
As somebody who has “always kind of been excited” about anything related to space and computers, Tweddle says that working in a field which allows him to put these two topics together “was a natural fit for me”. He is also keen to go into space himself in the future, although he recognises that he will face stiff competition: “Anyone who works in this field would like to go into outer space one day but the odds are tough right now. I’ll throw my name into the astronaut corps and see where it gets me.”
Tweddle has won a number of other scholarships and awards, including the 2011 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Guidance, Navigation and Control Award and Best Student Paper at the AIAA Guidance, Navigation and Control conference.