Exper­i­mental roboti­cist Marty Vona won’t be flying to the moon.

But his National Sci­ence Foundation-​​funded work on a robotic rover could help astro­nauts explore the big rock in the sky on a lunar mis­sion within the next decade.

Vona, an assis­tant pro­fessor of com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence, col­lab­o­rated with NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in La Canada Flintridge, Cal­i­fornia to design a soft­ware inter­face for the research and devel­op­ment center’s ATHLETE, or All Ter­rain Hex-​​Limbed Extra Ter­res­trial Explorer.

The six-​​legged vehicle can carry heavy pay­loads on its hexag­onal sur­face; dig trenches and pick up objects using tools that can attach to its wheels; take stereo­scopic video of its sur­round­ings using cam­eras imbedded in the face of the frame; and nav­i­gate rough ter­rain. A half-​​sized pro­to­type of the robot, which travels 10 kilo­me­ters per hour, is more than 6 feet tall and 9 feet in diameter.

But as orig­i­nally devel­oped, the robot had its lim­i­ta­tions. That’s where Vona came in. He used algo­rithms to vir­tu­ally modify the robot by adding joints and links to a graph­ical rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the vehicle. The joints func­tion like elbows, while the links work like forearms.

Through Vona’s com­puter inter­face, users can inter­con­nect these “vir­tual artic­u­la­tions” with a model of the actual robot, enabling it to exe­cute a variety of pre­vi­ously chal­lenging coor­di­nated motion tasks, as if the vir­tual com­po­nents actu­ally existed— saving NASA time and money.

Robots are large and expen­sive,” said Vona, whose schol­ar­ship focuses on robotics oper­a­tions and con­trol, “so you want to be sure you know how they’re going to per­form under cer­tain conditions.”

In a per­fect world, “astro­nauts and the lunar robot will be roving around the moon as a team.”

Before joining the North­eastern fac­ulty, Vona spent two years at the Jet Propul­sion Lab, where he cre­ated the sci­ence oper­a­tions soft­ware for the Spirit and Oppor­tu­nity Mars rovers. Vona earned the 2004 NASA Soft­ware of the Year Award for his work.

He’s had a pas­sion for building robots for as long as he can remember.

At around age 6, he wrote a letter out­lining his wishes for humankind. “I wish that anyone could do any­thing if they tried,” the note said. “For example, anyone could make a robot to do all the house­work … life would be a lot easier.”