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Published on: Feb. 8, 2021, 1:12 a.m.
It is rocket science!
  • Nag finds time from her ‘parallel’ high-tech careers to read and write

By Sekhar Seshan. Consulting Editor, Business India

A senior research scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center since June 2014, Sreeja Nag is the Principal Investigator of the D-SHIELD project, supported by NASA's Advanced Information System Technology Program. “I like intellectual challenges!” says the Pune girl who moved to the US to do her Ph.D in space systems engineering at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology’s aeronautics and astronautics department. She had completed her undergraduate degrees in exploration geophysics from the Indian Institute Of Technology, Kharagpur, where she worked on her thesis in collaboration with University of California, Berkeley.

This is why she likes working on the hardest problems of science and engineering that are relevant to the earth and society as, with some of the smartest people she has met, she explains: “All this helps me stay humble and grounded, while learning a lot daily.”

Nag also likes to have some combination of autonomy in choosing a direction, role and tasks – which, she points out, a research career allows because long-term innovation needs vision and space to think beyond the next deadline. Another factor is meaningfulness and service to the world, in terms of helping people and nature separately “because they’re mostly mutually conflicting, even for the most well-meaning organisations or individuals”. For nature, her work allows her to work on applications that will eventually benefit the environment by monitoring it better; and for people, she hopes to inspire children or college students to pursue math and science and critical thinking in whatever profession they choose.

If that looks like a lot for a 30-something-year-old to have taken on, Nag also has a parallel career: she leads and manages the autonomy systems engineering team at Nuro, a robotics company that delivers local goods using custom, self-driving vehicles that operate on public roads. Her team is responsible for architecting requirements for Nuro’s autonomy stack, and designing verification and validation experiments to make this ready for public roads.

While her current work involves developing a suite of software tools to enable an operator to command and receive data from a swarm as a single entity and enable a swarm to autonomously coordinate its actions via distributed decision-making and reactive closed-loop control, Nag’s ‘use case’ is that the project has been expanded into applications of global soil moisture mapping, cyclone tracking, urban flood monitoring, and cloud remote sensing. “There are no immediate plans to test on LEO (lunar exploration orbiter) spacecraft but we are exploring options with commercial providers,” she says.

Field of View sensors

She also conducts research with the earth science division of the Science Mission Directorate, developing an algorithmic framework to run on board small spacecraft, so that the constellations can make time-sensitive decisions to slew and capture images autonomously, without ground control. “We have developed a communication module for onboard data management and routing among the satellites that will work in conjunction with the other modules to optimise the schedule of agile communication and steering,” she says.

“We have developed a software tool for scheduling pointing operations of narrow field-of-view (FoV) sensors on agile, small spacecraft over mission lifetime for rapid-response imaging for given regions on the Earth, to maximise metrics like global coverage and revisit statistics,” Nag explains. “Our algorithm optimises constellation satellite pointing based on a dynamic programming approach under the constraints of orbital mechanics and existing attitude control systems for small satellites and shows a 2.5-fold increase in images seen compared to static, nadir sensors.”

“I like my current dabbling in aerospace, robotics and earth/planetary science, because it fulfils most of this,” she says, adding: “Unlike most space people out there, I didn’t want to be an astronaut or build rockets. I guess I just wanted to make a satisfactory story out of my life.”

Besides all her scientific interests and pursuits – her PhD thesis was on the design and evaluation of distributed spacecraft missions for multi-angular earth observation – she does ‘lots of reading and some writing’. “I love books, abstractions and stories in general,” she grins.

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