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Meet: Keith Nicewarner

Photo of Keith with PSA

Robotics Engineer
NASA Ames Research Center

Who I Am and What I Do
My name is Keith Nicewarner and I'm a robotics engineer at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA. I supervise several robotics research projects, including an advanced Mars rover and the Personal Satellite Assistant (PSA) robot designed for the International Space Station (ISS). I spend most of my time on the PSA project, and I'm in charge of all the software that goes on board the PSA
as well as the operator console and off board dock computer. I also work very closely with the people building all the hardware for the robot. For my job, I use my skills in software, electrical and mechanical engineering as well as my project management skills.

Preparation for Career
I've always been interested in robots. When I was growing up, I was always trying to build a robot. My first robot was nothing more than a cardboard box with drawings all over it and Christmas lights poking through holes in it. As I got older, I learned more about mechanics and electronics. In high school, I built my first really functional robot that could run around a room and learn by bumping into things.

Growing up
My dad was in the air force while I was growing up, so we moved around a lot. But we spent most of our time in Pineville, Louisiana, so I call that my home town. When I wasn't building a robot, I was always building something -- models, tree houses, underground forts, etc.

I've always liked science fiction. Growing up, I liked watching Star Trek. I was always reading sci fi books. Oddly enough, though, I've never really liked Asimov books on robots. I never thought they were realistic enough for me.

My Career Journey
I grew up mostly in Pineville, Louisiana, and went to the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts (LSMSA) for high school. After that, I went to Louisiana Tech
and studied electrical engineering. The more I learned, the more I liked learning, so I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, where I got my
Ph.D. in systems engineering.

After graduating from RPI, I started working for Lockheed Martin in Nashua, NH. I worked on some automated flight planners for aircraft, and then on a project to build a tiny 6-inch-wingspan airplane for the military. I then moved to California and started working for SRI in Menlo Park. While there, I worked on several military robotics projects. I also was introduced to the PSA project, which had just started. I liked it so much that I switched jobs so that I could work on it full-time.

Advice
The main advice I would give anyone interested in robotics is to never stop learning. Robotics requires skills in mechanics, electronics, and software, so the more you learn in each of these fields, the better. Also, always try to apply what you learn in school. Even if you don't get graded on it, come up with a project that you can build and use what you've learned. It will help make learning fun as well as help you understand what you learn.

Personal Information
I currently live in sunny San Jose, CA, with my wife and kids. My oldest is Ryan, who's nearly 20 months old and loves to help me build things. Connor is only 3 months old and is trying to catch up with Ryan. We have 2 cats, Itchy and Scratchy, who don't have tails because they're part Manx.

My wife Dawn and I like to go hiking and rollerblading. We can't wait until our boys are old enough to come with us! I still like to build things -- whether I build from a model kit or with my huge Lego collection. But building a robot is the most fun because it involves using all my skills.

Plans for the future
My plans for the future include seeing the PSA deployed on the Space Station. I eventually want to become a mission manager on a space robot mission. I'd ultimately like to be involved in the commercialization of space using robots. A commercial robotic lunar colony is something I'd like to see.

A Favorite Quote:
Lead, follow, or get out of the way!

 
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