Jacquie Callahan
The Mathematics of Robot Motion

Jacquie Callahan (left) and Carol Collins

Imagine a satellite in orbit thousands of miles above the earth in the complete silence of outer space. Suppose the satellite is somehow disabled—how can it be repaired? Sending humans into space is costly and potentially dangerous. Could a robot be sent up to look things over, find the right bolts to turn, replace batteries, remove unwanted debris? That seems like a simple solution, but in fact, successful designs for such robots are still a dream of the future. Combining mathematics, engineering, and computer science, robotics is an active field of research presenting many fascinating challenges. One of the biggest is developing the mathematical basis for the necessary modeling and calculations.

Jacquie Callahan recently finished her bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics at California State University at San Luis Obispo and now works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Under the mentorship of Carol Collins, a mathematician and computer scientist at JPL, Jacquie worked on an effort to develop a new approach to a fundamental and difficult problem: programming a robot arm to move from one point to another without colliding with other objects.

The method they developed was used at a Kennedy Space Center testbed to position a camera to take detailed pictures of certain portions of a space shuttle payload assist module. Ordinarily, Jacquie explains, “the way they do it is to have people climb up the scaffolding” around a spacecraft in the payload module. “It can be very dangerous, and you can also drop things into the spacecraft.” Using a robot arm to position the camera solves such problems.

Jacquie now works on another JPL project involving TOPEX, an earth-orbiting satellite that will study the world’s oceans by measuring sea levels, mapping basinwide variations in currents, and gauging the impact of currents on global climate change. “I’m working with a software development team to create software tools to aid users in developing sequences of events which the satellite is to perform,” she explains.

Jacquie grew up in Oakdale, California and attended Oakdale High School. She was involved in gymnastics, track, and cross-country, in addition to her academic studies. Now that she has finished her bachelor’s degree, Jacquie is considering graduate school in mathematics or computer science, but for the moment she is content to keep working at JPL, where she feels she is continuing to learn. “I like the idea of applying something while I’m learning it, seeing where I can go with it,” she says. Having recently married, she is concerned about balancing career and family. “I want to have kids, but how will I work everything out?” she wonders. No doubt Carol Collins, who Jacquie says has been a “great mentor,” will also prove a good example: Carol recently had a baby and continues to work at JPL.

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This brochure was published in 1991, so some information may be out-of-date.

Copyright ©1991, 2018 Association for Women in Mathematics. All rights reserved.
Comments: awm@awm-math.org.