Adviser for Decades of Space, Robot Competitions Isn’t Powering Down
Photos courtesy of David Akin
When engineering students sought an adviser to help them enter an international robotic sub showdown, aerospace engineering Professor David Akin had what it took to blow the competition out of the water: enthusiasm, expertise and a 367,000-gallon tank.
For 40 years (including 35 at Maryland), Akin has guided student teams to design, test and showcase spacesuits, space stations, rovers and more, helping Maryland build to compete—and win big.
“Dave jumps into these things with both feet, and that’s a sign of his commitment to students,” says aerospace engineering Professor Christopher Cadou. “He gets their attention and engages them early; what Dave does in one year is a microcosm of what we’re trying to do as a college.”
An expert in space systems who has collaborated with NASA, other government agencies and academic institutions to develop robotic systems for efficient and safe space exploration, he oversees a laboratory that substitutes as a hands-on, intergalactic playground for students.
Because of Akin, Maryland has been a fixture at NASA’s national competition scene in contests like RASC-AL, where Maryland has competed (and often won) since 2003, X-Hab, which challenges students to design and build lunar habitats, and the Robo-Ops challenge, where students must navigate a rover through rock-strewn obstacle courses in Houston remotely from College Park. Akin is also a Maryland mentor for the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International’s RoboSub Competition. In it, students design, build and test an autonomous underwater vehicle in the university’s neutral buoyancy tank, which Akin had built with a NASA grant in 1990; it remains one of only two in the country.
“Professor Akin provides the resources to do the work and the freedom to just run with it,” says Natalie Condzal ’22, now an operation systems engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “He’s there to talk things through, but he’s not going to help you solve the problem, and that’s helped me find success in my career.”
Beyond the dozens of victories—plaques displaying the wins adorn the walls of Akin’s Space Systems Laboratory—he relishes in students’ success post-graduation; they’ve gone on to work for NASA, SpaceX, Northrup Grumman and more. But it’s the learning value of the small moments, when students are building and tinkering, trying and failing, that motivates him to volunteer his time year after year.
“One of the great things about getting students involved is you can take someone who may be limping by and get their hands into a project—and all of the sudden it makes sense,” he says.
At 70, his career might seem ready for a splashdown—but not with NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge, which offers a $150,000 purse, on the horizon. Selected to compete last year, Maryland sent a four-legged robot into the California desert. A student team will be going for the win this year, with Akin giving them plenty of space to succeed.
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