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Arid Deserts, Deep Sea and Arctic Ice: How KBR Safely Handles Fieldwork Testing in Some of the World’s Harshest Environments

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KBR’s Antoine Tardy poses next to his test subject, the KRex2 rover, while on deployment in the Atacama Desert of Chile.
Photo credit: Arno Rogg / KBR

Unpacking the mysteries of the cosmos often begins in the most unexpected places. KBR’s Intelligent Systems Research and Development Support (ISRDS) contract fieldwork engineers are a testament to this, transforming desolate landscapes – from the barren deserts of Chile to the inky blackness of the deep sea – into crucial testing grounds for the future of space exploration.

In one of the most complex field camps ever visited, KBR supported NASA’s K10 rover testing at the Haughton Mars Project in 2009 and 2010, located at the famous Haughton impact crater – an impact structure on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Since then, KBR has provided on-site support for remote  NASA science analog projects like the Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) in 2015-2019 and the Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog (SUBSEA) (2017 – 2020). Each mission pushes the boundaries of scientific discovery, venturing into extreme environments that mimic the harsh realities of other worlds.

Testing Beyond the Lab 

KBR’s Antoine Tardy has been supporting ISRDS for over six years. As a robotic research engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, Tardy assisted ARADS in software and hardware integration and drove NASA’s KRex2 rover. The project aimed to enhance the technology readiness levels (TRL) of four science instruments to detect life in the Atacama Desert. Following the success of ARADS, Tardy was also selected as a rover driver for NASA’s robotic mission to the Moon’s South Pole under the Artemis campaign, VIPER, which is planned for delivery later this year.

As part of ARADS, “We were responsible for unpacking and reassembling the rover, integrating the instruments onto it, performing checkouts and dry runs, and piloting the rover remotely in the field,” Tardy said. “We were in tight collaboration with the science team to ensure the instruments were functional and that the rover placements were optimal for science data gathering.”

While fieldwork throws demanding environmental and scientific curveballs, engineers like Tardy thrive in these constraints. Their efficiency and results-oriented mindset turn these challenges into a source of professional satisfaction, fueling their passion for pushing boundaries in the field. 

“You have a fixed set of people, tools, gear and time. Solving unforeseen issues in time to complete objectives, with limited resources, is an exciting and challenging puzzle,” he said. 

Field deployments in harsh environments often require increased safety measures, communications and teamwork. 

“Desert temperature swings were extreme,” Tardy said. “We slept in tents for three weeks towards the end of Chilean fall, with very high temperatures during the day and below freezing temperatures at night. Everyone must support each other, make an extra effort to communicate well, and be proactive about your tasks.”

Moreover, flexibility and improvisation are frequently required. Tardy explains that you cannot predict how things will go wrong, which is why they do field testing in the first place. After ensuring the subsystems and systems are functional in a controlled lab environment, they undergo field testing to detect any unforeseen challenges that may arise. 

“Field testing provides the final increment in assessing the viability of a design. Understanding that,” Tardy explains, “has made me a better robotics engineer and rover operator.”

Fellow rover driver and KBR robotic systems engineer at Ames, Arno Rogg also participated in two three-week field test campaigns in the Atacama Desert.

“Working in field conditions truly aligns with who I am: a problem solver, a multidisciplinary engineer and a fervent team player. There's something about the unpredictability and challenges of fieldwork that I find incredibly satisfying. While it might seem counterintuitive, the tough environmental conditions, intricate systems and unforeseen issues that we navigate as a team are aspects I deeply enjoy,” Rogg said.

The Atacama Desert, commonly known as one of the driest places on Earth, presented them with harsh conditions on top of the wide-ranging temperatures, like relentless sun with scarce shade and strong afternoon winds. Despite the ruthless conditions, the team rose to the challenge, often beginning work before dawn and finishing after dusk, to ensure the rover was operational ahead of schedule and concluding tasks well after the day’s science goals were achieved.

Just like astronauts and flight controllers need to think on their feet to solve problems in space, fieldwork in any complex environment demands a strong dose of ingenuity.

“A particularly memorable incident was when a critical, irreplaceable component of the rover, malfunctioned during a vital phase of operations,” Rogg said. “Despite the precarious situation, my team and I devised a solution within less than a day, utilizing the limited resources at our disposal. This quick thinking and adaptability allowed the mission to proceed with minimal interruption.”

The Invaluable Lessons of Fieldwork

For Tardy and Rogg, fieldwork has always been a rewarding and overwhelmingly positive experience. They also credit the deployments for learning the invaluable lesson that practical experience is irreplaceable, offering insights and confidence that theoretical testing cannot.

“My experience as a systems and test engineer has cemented my belief in the crucial role of fieldwork,” Rogg said. “I subscribe to two guiding principles: ‘Test like you fly’ and ‘It does not work until you fully test it.’ These tenets highlight the gap between laboratory success and real-world application.” 

He continued to explain that fieldwork is the ultimate test of a system’s readiness, pushing it beyond the confines of the lab to perform in the actual conditions it's designed for.

“It is vital for validating the system's functionality and reliability, proving that a system is truly mission-ready only after it has been thoroughly tested in an environment that mimics its intended operational setting.”

Tamar Cohen, a senior computer scientist with KBR at Ames, could not agree more with the importance of fieldwork testing.

“It is expensive and challenging to go to space, with humans or robots. It makes a lot more sense to practice here on Earth,” she said, noting, “If you are just in simulation, in the lab, or doing ‘pretend science’, you don’t stress the systems as much as you would when you have a real science team working on actual research.”

Cohen, who’s been with KBR supporting NASA for almost 15 years, has participated in nearly 30 deployments. 

“My favorite field project was SUBSEA, where we partnered with NOAA to simulate the search for life beyond Earth by diving beneath Hawaiian waves to explore hydrothermal systems of underwater volcanoes. These special locations could look a lot like what we'll find on the other ocean worlds in our solar system – prime candidates to potentially support life.”

To do so, they used the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET)’s Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus, a 68-meter research vessel that is equipped with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) supported by both a ship-based science team and a remote science team located at the Inner Space Center of the University of Rhode Island to simulate a NASA remote operations scenario. 

Embedded within the remote science team, Cohen, a lead ground data system (xGDS) architect, played a role in making swift software adjustments to support the unpredictable needs of analog fieldwork. 

“Whether on a lake with ROVs, divers and submersibles, on a volcano with people wearing instrumented backpacks and carrying instruments, or in a lava tube cave with a rover, the concept and goal is the same – rapid science decision-making during remote exploration,” she said. 

“For SUBSEA, we integrated xGDS into the existing infrastructure, providing better interactive tooling for planning, monitoring and exploring mission data. We were trying to execute rapid scientific decision-making during low or no bandwidth communications to make real discoveries in the ocean, and we succeeded.”

Safety First, Always

As with all missions, success isn't a matter of luck. It demands meticulous preparation, dedicated teamwork and unwavering commitment. But at the forefront of it all stands the unwavering principle of safety.

“A lot of planning goes into the field tests, almost a year ahead, for both people on the ground and people at the centers supporting,” said Ernest Smith, KBR ISDRS autonomous systems and robotics technical area liaison. 

“We don't wait for problems to arise – we preempt them. Our fieldwork protocol includes mandatory medical exams, extensive risk analysis, and proactive mitigation planning. This meticulous preparation, alongside location-specific safety briefings and training, ensures the well-being of our personnel in even the most challenging environments,” he said.

This comes as no surprise considering KBR’s safety-first attitude. From its Zero Harm values to its 60 years of advanced expertise supporting complicated human spaceflight operations, fieldwork on Earth might be the least of their worries.

“I always feel safe and informed when I am on field tests as well as very well accommodated by the projects,” Cohen said. “When’s the next one?”

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