What sort of career do you get when you mix mechanical engineering, computer science, studying the German language, and research experience in remote areas such as Greenland?
For Kristof Richmond, you get a multi-disciplinary career building underwater robots that may someday be used to explore places like Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that is thought to have an icy exterior and a liquid-filled ocean interior. Europa has been a subject of much interest to the scientific community for its potential for harboring life, but ultimately a massive engineering feat to find out.
Kristof Richmond, Stone Aerospace engineer and Frontier Astronautics Partner. Image courtesy of Kristof Richmond.
Richmond’s culmination of experiences working with complex systems in hostile environments and pursuing scientific inquiries has made him especially suited to his current role as a guidance, navigation, and control engineer for Stone Aerospace. The team is solving deeply complex robotic and navigation problems where their systems need to be able to map and explore unknown environments with little to no communication or assistance from operators.
Additionally, Richmond is a partner of Frontier Astronautics, another company that is working on making space exploration more economical and accessible through a variety of projects.
AAC's Chantelle Dubois interviewed Richmond to learn more about how his career and skillset led to him building robots for our earthly oceans and, someday, Europa.
Chantelle Dubois (AAC): Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Kristof Richmond (KR): I did my undergraduate studies at Rice University in Houston where I studied mechanical engineering and German. I was already interested in robotics or control systems and worked for a couple of years at a research station in Greenland. There was a large radar antenna that we had there and so that really got me interested in control systems and working with real hardware in the field. There, I also received a great background in all kinds of scientific station instruments. We were out in Greenland, so we couldn’t just run down to Radioshack to get replacement parts—there was a lot of troubleshooting things and hacking some fixes with what we had available up there. So that was a really good introduction to working with real hardware in the field, in extreme conditions, and I learned a whole bunch in that setting.
Then I went back to graduate school at Stanford and again that was technically in mechanical engineering, but I took a lot of computer science classes, as well. I was working in an aerospace robotics lab with professor Steve Rock, my advisor. There, Professor Rock had a joint appointment with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and we did projects with the underwater vehicles that they had running in the bay. I was looking around at a couple different labs when I was at Stanford trying to figure out where I wanted to focus my studies and decided I wanted to focus on robotics. Then I heard about this lab where they went out on the ocean with their robots and that was where I had to be.
I heard about this lab where they went out on the ocean with their robots and that was where I had to be.
I love the aspect of exploration and unknown environments—really remote places that people can’t get to or it’s really hard for people to get to, and where robots just really make a lot more sense. So that’s what attracted me to that lab.
Then I worked on visual navigation over the sea floor with underwater robots and using a camera and other onboard sensors like a gyro compass and a Doppler velocity log to navigate and control the vehicle over the sea floor. As the robot was moving around, it would build a map of where it was and at the same time use that map to be able to control itself and be able to pick another point that it’s been to before and go back to that. And so, that was my PhD thesis.
AAC: After all that, how did you find yourself with Stone Aerospace and Frontier Astronautics?
KR: I actually had a small side job when I was doing my PhD working on a small project building a lunar lander challenge vehicle [for] Northrop Grumman’s XPrize. The challenge was specifically looking at ways to make cheap, reusable landers and so I worked on that project for a company called Frontier Astronautics in Wyoming.
As I was getting ready to graduate, they wanted me to come on as a partner. At the same time, I also was contacted by Bill Stone, who was referred to me by my advisor, about a new Endurance project that was starting up at Stone Aerospace at that time. Endurance was this vehicle that would go to Antarctica into ice-covered lake. [It] ended up working out that I became a partner at Frontier Astronautics, but at the same time Stone Aerospace hired us as a consultant to work on these robotics projects and that’s basically the arrangement I’ve had ever since. I’ve worked on a variety of projects, the bulk of my work has been for Stone Aerospace, but I’ve had a couple of other projects, as well, through Frontier Astronautics.
Kristof (far right) monitors real-time data coming back from ARTEMIS with colleagues Evan Clark and Mark Scully inside the Polar Haven "bot garage" on the McMurdo Sound sea ice. (© 2015 Peter Kimball/Stone Aerospace, Inc.)
AAC: What has been your favorite project to work on with Stone Aerospace and Frontier Astronautics?
KR: I think the Sunfish project. That’s Stone Aerospace’s internal development project, so we’ve been working on that for quite a number of years now. We’ve managed to bring it to a point last year where we actually did some pretty revolutionary exploration of these underground springs and we’ve definitely made huge strides in demonstrating the capabilities that we need to be able to send an autonomous vehicle into completely unknown territory and have it be able to map areas and come back safely.
AAC: Looking at some of Stone Aerospace and Frontier Astronautics’ projects, a lot of them are geared towards exploring really difficult environments like the oceans of Europa. I’m sure there are similar difficulties in ocean and cave exploration, but what sort of unique engineering challenges lay in these sorts of projects?
KR: I’ll maybe divide it into two categories: there’s one that relates more on working with Frontier Astronautics in terms of cheap access to space, and then the other category is what I’ve mostly been working on with Stone Aerospace and doing robotic exploration in completely new environments.
So, for what I’m doing with Frontier Astronautics, the unique challenges are actually maybe not so much engineering, but they are more cultural where the mindset that countries and most of the aerospace community have about space travel is that it’s like an endeavour that requires a national effort and it’s going to require lots of resources and this great flagship [project]. So, all our rockets have to be super highly optimized engineering machines and there’s astronauts [that we] can’t damage, so that just results in really expensive equipment, of course.
Trying to break that mindset and think about how we can really be practical about getting to space. Instead of building our super-charged Lamborghini, build like a Toyota Corolla or a dune buggy. That will maybe not get us as far or as fast or as perfectly into space, but it will sure be a lot easier for a lot more people. So that’s where we’ve been trying to push a bunch of ideas that we have been pushing for: doing simple engineering and breaking some of the conventions and the rules of thumb that have been built up over the past half century which have all been relying on continuing the space race mindset of these great national projects.
Scientists believe there is a liquid ocean under the icy surface of Europa. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL.
Then there’s when we’re thinking about the exploration of Europa—or, in general, what are called ocean worlds—that the ocean is going to be covered by ice because it’s cold out there. [Ocean worlds are] mostly heated by either tidal dynamics or reactive heat like in the cores, and there’s massive amounts of water, there’s way more water in the outer solar system than there is in the inner solar system. So, finding the water is not a problem, finding liquid water is a little more difficult, and then getting to the liquid water is the problem.
So, if we’re talking about going through tens of kilometres of ice, that is not a problem that we as people have ever really faced. How do you have a vehicle, robots or not, penetrate and move through ice like that? This is something we’ve talked about a lot at Stone Aerospace. If you’re going to design an airplane you have your standard aeronautical charts, you have known drag coefficients or lift coefficients for different air foils, we have this whole repository of engineering knowledge that’s been built up [that tells us how to make] something that moves through air. We don’t really have that for something that’s going to move through ice. So [we need to do] what we call fundamental engineering [on] how does a vehicle that’s going to melt it’s way through ice behave—what are the relations between power and speed, the total energy required, and these kinds of basic things.
Then there’s things for power. You’re probably going to definitely need a nuclear power source [since] there’s basically no other way to get that amount of power required for moving through ice out to the outer planet. Nobody has really gone back and thought about "okay, so if we’re working in this kind of environment in ice, and you need this source to provide [not only power but also] heat, what does that and of power source look like?"
Once you get through the ice, then there’s how to move through this ice cap and get data back reliably, and make enough of its own decisions since it’s going to be completely out of touch, or with very low bandwidth communications back to Earth. It’s going to have to have a lot of its own capabilities and yet it’s going to be doing one of the most important scientific tasks that humanity has ever tried to embark upon: discovering life off of the planet.
Just re-thinking a lot of these fundamental assumptions that have gone into the whole aerospace engineering field when you are talking about this completely new environment, is a very exciting place to be.
AAC: It seems that the future of exploration for robotics is wide open. Considering that there seems to be a lot of interest in privatization, do you think we’ll see rapid evolvement—and maybe one of your own robots on Europa—anytime soon?
KR: I definitely hope to see a robot on Europa in my lifetime, and I think we’ve sketched out fairly aggressive timelines where you would be launching something that could penetrate the European crust in early the 2030s. Then it takes a couple of years to get there and it takes probably a year or two to get through the ice. So you are talking 2040 or something before we would actually be able to see any results coming back from Europa.
I really can’t imagine very many more exciting and probably important things to work on than trying to enable the discovery, or non-discovery, of life on a body like this. I mean, if we don’t find anything, that definitely tells us a lot, too, about our place in the universe.
AAC: Is there anything you’d like our readers to know about your work, Stone Aerospace, or Frontier Astronautics?
KR: I think what I’ve done, and what Stone Aerospace and Frontier Astronautics are doing, is not the traditional kind of career path or way that people think about space exploration. We’re not NASA, we’re not Lockheed Martin, we’re not Boeing, we’re not some national space program—but this is where a lot of innovation is happening and, for me, it was a very new and exciting way to get into this.
I definitely expected to be working at some national lab or big company, so it was definitely a bit of a risk for me to jump into a very unsure, unstable environment and I went in head first and have managed to make it work.
There are new ways of working in this economy and we don’t have to rely on all of these corporate and bureaucratic structures that have been built up. They’ve served their purpose but if you want to do something and you have some ideas, don’t be afraid to take a risk and try to make it work out.
AAC: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Kristof!