UB’s Robotic Monkey Ready for Next Launch

A series of HAM prototypes

UB’s robot monkey is ready for the pandemic to be over so he can launch once again into near space.

After receiving a $200,000 NASA Undergraduate Student Instrument Project Grant (USIP) in 2016, UB School of Engineering and SASD students collaborated to build a robotic monkey named for HAM, the chimpanzee who flew into space in 1961 on one of NASA’s early rockets. The robotic HAM is an educational tool to help students learn the fundamentals of high-altitude ballooning, space flight, and mission operations.

Through NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium, the USIP grant was distributed among the University of Bridgeport, the University of Hartford, and Wesleyan University. Each university has played a pivotal role in the project, with UB designing and constructing the 3D printed robot with its electronics and communications. UB Engineering Professor Jani Macari Pallis has served as the faculty project manager for the team, which includes current students Anna Hempowicz, Ricky He, Kathie Atkinson, and alumni Patricio Xavier Flores, Xuan "Sam" Zhang, Phil Carroll, Trinadh Venna, Kareem Saleh, Nicholas Covertito and Rishi Warokar.

“When students, elementary-aged and up, see a photo of the Earth from above, the experience is similar to what they see out of an airplane window,” Pallis explains. “But with a robot that the children can interact with during the flight, the encounter is much more engaging.”

HAM operates within a lightweight foam capsule taken up by the high-altitude balloon into near space, and can speak and make gestures, moving both hand and head and reporting his instrument readings.

The prototype servomotors that operate HAM’s motions were both ground and flight tested for 24 hours at a Texas–based NASA high altitude balloon facility to test how they would hold up in varying temperature and pressure conditions. “Students learned that the lubricant and seals for the robot’s servomotors that operate HAM’s joints could freeze or break in the -100-degree Fahrenheit vacuum at an altitude of up to 120,000 feet,” says Pallis. Soon after these tests, HAM was ready to go.

The Discovery Museum in Bridgeport houses the only Challenger Center in Connecticut, part of which resembles NASA mission control. Through the efforts of staff and volunteers at the museum, it will act as a real, functional mission control, using radio communications and telemetry to interact with HAM. Along with Dr. Pallis, UB Director of Communications Miguel Arroyo, UB staff member Trinadh Venna, and several engineering students took a course to get their radio licenses in order to send instructions to these balloons and satellites.

The robot was successfully tested last November, interacting with UB engineering students and other participants during the high-altitude balloon flight. While watching live video transmitted from the capsule far above the earth, students were able to control the robotic monkey and perform experiments. “It was a real life look at how a space mission operates,” says Pallis.

When the pandemic allows, The Discovery Museum plans to launch regular flights with the robotic monkey, up to four times a year, using its Challenger Center Mission Control Room to allow students interact with it.

For now, HAM is waiting, like the rest of us, for liftoff.