Ayanna Howard, 31
Writes programs that more intelligently guide actions of robots
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Electrical engineer Ayanna Howard sees a future in which humans and machines work together to explore new terrain. Today’s planetary rovers- suitcase-size robots that move on wheels- must be remotely controlled by human operators, a labor-intensive and imprecise process. So Howard, who weeks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, developed artificial-intelligence software that mimics the decisions humans make about where to land spacecraft and how to navigate robots safely. Loaded onto a rover’s computer, Howard’s software can process information from maps and video cameras and automatically find a safe path between two points, in real time. The rover can thus avoid craters instead of trying to negotiate their edges- at great risk to multimillion-dollar equipment. Rovers equipped with Howard’s software are now used by forest rangers in Idaho to map loggings shattered by earthquakes or bombs. In 2001, Howard won the Lew Allen Award, JPL’s highest honor for leadership and innovation.