Advancing space robotics: Chasing a new frontier at Texas A&M

Dr. Robert Ambrose has joined the faculty of the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical  Engineering at Texas A&M University. Along with his appointment, Ambrose is also the recipient of the Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI) grant program and The Texas A&M University System Chancellor’s Research Initiative (CRI).

A member of the National Academy of Engineering, Ambrose will serve as a professor in the department as well as a staff member of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station and the George H.W. Bush Combat Development Complex. Ambrose comes to Texas A&M from NASA, where he served as chief of the software, robotics and simulation division at the Johnson Space Center.

He received his mechanical engineering bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin.

“Investments in our faculty, particularly the recruitment of National Academy members, is vital to a university’s pursuit of excellence,” said Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp. “I am proud that we have more than tripled our National Academy members in recent years, and the university has benefitted so much from their contributions to teaching and research.”

Ambrose’s research focuses on robotic manipulation and mobility, specifically in relation to space robotics — a field that he said is growing rapidly. Ambrose said he is excited to bring his decades of experience to Texas A&M to explore and address new and emerging challenges in this field.

“The energy we see in space today is exciting, with new companies, new approaches and new challenges,” Ambrose said. “We intend for Texas A&M to become the premier university for space robotics at a time when the field is breaking out. But much of what we need first in space will then create new markets on Earth. For example, the Texas A&M focus on off-road autonomous vehicles is a perfect fit for a guy building lunar rovers at NASA for the last 20 years.”

While space is the frontier for which engineers are innovating, the core areas of robotic manipulation and mobility will also serve to provide technological advancements to daily life here on Earth as well. Ambrose noted robotic applications including construction, food production and logistics for small crews as just a few areas where the needs of astronauts overlap with advances in industry as well — including robots building homes, assisting in food production and delivering packages.

“Imagine a team of humans and robots building a home in a week or a family farmer in Texas with robotic equipment able to out compete massive industrial farms overseas,” Ambrose said. “The implementation will be like a person with a sewing machine able to do more than with a single needle and thread, or a person with a power drill versus a manual screwdriver. Robots are a force multiplier and the ultimate power tools.”

He said a decade of leading robotics at NASA has provided him an appreciation for the rapid speed at which technology is advancing and the critical need to provide a strong education to the engineers of the future.

“It is a competitive world, and I intend to help Texas A&M produce the top talent and new ideas for the field,” Ambrose said. “For over a decade at NASA, I have run a division of more than 500 engineers, helping projects get formulated, helping engineers work through design challenges and urgently fixing problems for astronauts in space. I am excited to teach that problem-solving approach to our next generation.”

An internationally recognized leader in robotics and autonomous systems, Ambrose has recently managed robots on the International Space Station, software and simulations for SpaceX, Boeing and Orion Spacecraft, and the development of exercise equipment, wearable robotics and jetpacks used by astronauts during his service at NASA.

He is a founding member of the National Robotics Initiative, a member of the United States government’s Senior Executive Service and vice president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Robotics and Automation Society.

“The GURI and CRI programs have enabled Texas A&M to recruit some of the country’s top experts in a variety of high-impact engineering disciplines,” said Dr. John Hurtado, interim dean of the College of Engineering. “We are all excited to welcome Dr. Ambrose to Texas A&M and look forward to him sharing his expertise with our students and collaborating with his fellow faculty members.”

GURI was established in 2015 as a tool to aid public institutions of higher education in Texas to recruit distinguished researchers to the state.

“The GURI grant really sealed the deal for me coming to Texas A&M, accelerating my plans for developing new robotic systems and showing the state of Texas’ appetite for winning this new space race in robotics,” Ambrose said.