Connect Blogs

The audacity of Curiosity

05122015-utc-speakerThe Utility Telecom Council (UTC) hosted its annual conference in Atlanta this May, providing educational programs, networking (pun intended) and an exposition with more than 200 vendors showing all the latest and greatest technologies for utility communications. This is the second UTC annual conference that I have attended; they never disappoint.

A personal highlight is the keynote speaker at each year’s opening general session luncheon. UTC consistently provides inspiring, highly motivational speakers.

Last year we were inspired by John Foley, the former lead pilot of the Blue Angels. He related the leadership traits necessary to be in the top one percent of the top one percent of any endeavor.

This year, we heard from Dr. John Grotzinger, the chief scientist and head of Strategic Science Planning for NASA’s Curiosity Rover Mission to Mars. This successful 2012 Mars rover landing remains one of NASA’s all-time achievements. He attributed the success of this mission to four key factors.

Asking audacious questions leads to grand challenges
The team asked themselves how they could design, launch, fly to Mars, land at a predetermined target on the surface, and still have a functioning rover with mobility to sample and test the Martian surface geology. Control signals take approximately fourteen minute to go from Earth to the spacecraft, so the Mars landing system had to rely on autonomous control at the most critical point of the mission. The resulting accuracy of the landing point was essentially equivalent to shooting a gun in London and hitting a building in Los Angeles, and missing the target by one window.

Test as you fly, fly as you test
Many critical technologies were not invented when the project began. For example, the craft had to slow from 13,000 mph upon entering the Martian atmosphere to 1 mph or less at landing. NASA invented a lightweight 100 pound supersonic parachute that was used for part of the descent that slowed the craft to 200 mph before rockets took over. This alone subjected the spacecraft to 9 g.

Operating a rover for the first time on the Martian surface created the need to figure out how to best drive it…on the fly. The team used an identical rover at a test site to experiment with new ways of operating the rover as they discovered Mars surface challenges. For example, they used the test rover to determine that they could drive over sharp rocks backwards instead of forwards and prevent puncturing the Rover metal tires.

The team also devised a landing strategy called the “sky crane” method. Once the craft approached about 30 meters above the surface, the rover was lowered by cables to the surface, at which point the landing rocket would veer off to crash without disturbing the landing site. When the team presented this idea to the NASA Director, they were told to go back and think about it some more! Of course, eventually they convinced NASA to approve the plan, and it was successful.

Dr. Grotzinger suggested that the difference between crazy and genius can be a very thin line! You can some of these technological challenges below in a video called, “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

If at first you don’t succeed – quit. Figure out the root cause of the failure first. Then try again.

Every component and process was rigorously tested and retested before becoming a part of the mission. Failure was not an option, so nothing was left to any conceivable chance occurrence.

Planning is everything; plans are useless
Congressional funding for NASA interrupted the early stages of the project. When funding was restored, new technologies had been developed that enabled fundamental changes to the project.

These lessons are relevant to both Ulteig and our power clients. Our industry, as illustrated daily at UTC 2015, is being challenged to change and adapt more rapidly than ever. Smart Grid, the Internet of Things, increasing connectivity over wireless, distributed generation (wind and solar) and cybersecurity threats all demand different ways of thinking about our industry and our work. The challenges presented by what we face may not quite equal the scale of those faced by the Mars Rover team, yet the same principles apply.

It is a very exciting time to be working in the utility industry. I hope we are bold enough to ask those audacious questions, and then enjoy creating the solutions that will improve the lives of those among whom we work and live. And now I leave you with, “Curiosity Mars Landing 2012,” and be sure to note what I fondly describe as a “nerd eruption” at 8:30+…

About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.