An IC man’s journey to research high-powered robots

Mike Webb's research may result in important space discoveries.
“You’ve got to follow your fascination,” says Mike Webb.

Michael Webb grew up in Iowa City where he cultivated a fascination with all things DIY. That’s why, when he submitted his resume to Stone Aerospace last year, it was entitled, “Michael Webb, I’m a Maker.”

Stone Aerospace is an aerospace engineering firm founded by Bill Stone, who explained in a TED talk that he would like to send an exploratory robot called Valkyrie to Jupiter’s moon Europa. There, it would drill through more than 800 feet of ice to a liquid ocean in order to scan for signs of life. This is no easy task, and until now, the technology to power such a robot hadn’t existed. But these possibilities may be changing as a result of Stone’s development of high-power fiber optics and laser beams, which Webb has been hired to help research.

Webb wasn’t specifically looking to move elsewhere, but his natural curiosity inevitably led him to move to Austin, Texas this past December in order to work for Stone. In his new position, he is researching high-powered robots that will travel farther into space than their copper wire predecessors, potentially heralding in a new age of exploration.

When Webb was in Iowa City he could be found blending smoothies at Jazz Fest for Echollective farm, biking to Busy Coworking (a collaborative office he co-owns with Ben Oakes) or showing kids how his homemade 3-D printer worked at the Iowa City Public Library. He also started a local technology group for anyone who wanted to come and talk about projects or, as Webb says, “cool stuff in general,” which to him is anything you can make yourself.

Webb became involved in tinkering at a young age. His childhood was spent surrounded by books and inventive people. Webb says, “Rather than going out and buying something, [my parents] would make it themselves or get a book from the library and learn how to do something.” Webb also had babysitters that were into science (like the daughter of Dr. James Van Allen) and says, “They’d be like, ‘Hey do you want to take these fireworks apart?’ You know, what little kid wouldn’t want to do that?”

As he grew up, a local repairman encouraged Webb to tinker in his shop full of upright arcade games. It wasn’t long before Webb was trying his hand at fixing the broken machines himself. He started out simple, repairing power supply parts, and gradually progressed to fixing the internal computers.

Webb didn’t receive much formal education, which he found “so awful and boring.” He got out of high school and went to Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, where he studied “making things.” At Kirkwood, Webb picked up skills like welding and metal-working. He took a few very basic computer classes and was an expert in Novell Netware, which by the time he left school was practically obsolete—Webb’s first taste of how fast technology moves.

Looking back, it is easy for Webb to see what led him to Stone: All he did was “follow his fascination.” Last year, Webb was finishing up a tiny-house project where he said he had planned to “hibernate all winter,” when a friend invited him to come work at Stone Aerospace. At Stone, Webb’s wide-ranging skill set adds to a multi-disciplinary team of scientists and explorers who, according to their website, are “novel, lean, fast-moving and cutting-edge.” Webb said, “I just finally found a job where I fit.”

As part of his job, Webb works on developing autonomous underwater robots. One robot, DEPTHX, has the ability to see underwater with sonar. It has powerful computers that allow it to calculate its location and build maps because GPS won’t work underwater.

GPS also doesn’t extend to outer space, one reason that the company’s Valkyrie robot is funded partly by NASA. Stone’s robots are also important to NASA because they have the ability to “choose” when and how to gather samples of biological material to check for signs of life. NASA is especially interested in the moon Europa, because scientists believe there may be liquid water and possibly life under its icy surface. Shortly after Webb’s move to Austin in mid-December, Hubble shot pictures of Europa that revealed what looked like a geyser, further propelling the theory.

Webb is especially excited about his research in power sources for the robots. Valkyrie is a cryobot, or robot that can penetrate ice, that uses “high-power fiber-optic laser beam delivery” to melt the the frozen surface. He explained, “Your average red laser pointer is 5 MW or 0.005 watts of power. Just about right for presentations or entertaining the cat. The laser we use (5,000 watts) is approximately one million times stronger than your average red laser pointer.” Their goal at Stone is to send enough power down the fiber to power a robot in outer space.

“If you were to hold this laser in you hand you could probably cut a car in half with it, no problem” Webb said. “All that power is going down a glass fiber about the size of the lead in a mechanical pencil.”

Currently the team is planning a mission to Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf to test their technology, but in the meantime, Webb is using a giant food service freezer to make blocks of ice. “[It] is actually harder than you think because [the ice blocks] want to split and bust and they can’t have any air bubbles in them,” said Webb, “but we have to make these giant blocks of ice and we turn the laser-robot loose on them.”

Webb thinks that in the future, everything is going to run on high-power fiber optics because energy can travel farther in a more efficient and cheap way. To him, technology is best thought of as an eco-system: It’s not just one thing, but a network of different things. It’s not just computers and circuit boards, but the codes that run on them, and the math behind them. That’s why he believes it is important to work with a team that employs scientists from multiple fields, including “makers” like Webb.

“You know, I’ve just been quietly doing this stuff in my spare time for years working whatever job it took—food service, cutting down trees, changing oil, being a mechanic, it didn’t matter … I mean I didn’t even really know what was happening until I got down here,” said Webb, “You’ve got to follow your fascination.”

Heidi McKinley is endlessly curious and generally perplexed. She studies web design, journalism and brain science at the University of Iowa, and is allergic to most animals. 

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