2024 O’Donnell Award in Technology Innovation: Kimberly A. Hambuchen, Ph.D.

NASA Johnson Space Center Engineer Kimberly A. Hambuchen, Ph.D., Recognized for Seminal Research in Developing New Methods for Making Robots More Autonomous and Usable by Humans Across a Time Delay

A true pioneer in space, robotics engineer Kimberly A. Hambuchen, Ph.D., Deputy Chief, Software, Robotics and Simulation Division at NASA Johnson Space Center, is the recipient of the 2024 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Technology Innovation from TAMEST. She was chosen for her seminal research in developing new methods for making robots more autonomous and usable by humans across a time delay.

Dr. Hambuchen’s research focuses on human-robot systems. As she likes to put it, robots are great for “dull, dirty and dangerous jobs,” so the more humans can control them remotely, the better. The idea is: with a higher level of autonomy, robots are able to get more done.

Her key innovation is called the “affordance template.” It’s a coding of a robotic system’s ability to perform a function autonomously. In her approach, a remote human interacts with the robot as a “supervisor,” making sure that the robot is in a situation where it has the capability to perform a task. The supervisor helps guide the robot to complete certain tasks but does not control every aspect that they do. Dr. Hambuchen’s work expands on the technology exhibited in remote mining operations in the oil and gas industry and autonomous vehicles.

This technology could prove to be especially important for NASA’s space exploration, where there is a significant time delay between the “supervisor” on earth and the robot executing the task in space. On Mars, the time delay is anywhere between seven minutes and 42 minutes roundtrip, so robotics can act as a solution to that temporal problem. Dr. Hambuchen’s affordance template also affords robots the ability to perform many different tasks so that engineers would not have to create a specific robot for each system in outer space. Her work is not only relevant in space, as her innovations with robotics automation in time delay are being tested for deep-sea exploration as well.

“Not only is Dr. Hambuchen an outstanding engineer and innovator providing solutions to the control of robotics, but she is also an exceptional team leader,” said nominator Steven Fredrickson, Ph.D., Chief, Software, Robotics and Simulation Division, NASA Johnson Space Center. “Her work involves hardware, software, electronics and robotics, so it’s a very interdisciplinary and all-encompassing field. It’s not just that she’s a brilliant innovator in the lab in her own right, she also has the ability to lead teams and coordinate different activities seamlessly. Her work is going to prove very valuable as NASA continues its mission to go back to the moon, to Mars and beyond.”

Dr. Hambuchen is one of five Texas-based researchers receiving the TAMEST 2024 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards. Each are chosen for their individual contributions addressing the essential role that science and technology play in society, and whose work meets the highest standards of exemplary professional performance, creativity and resourcefulness.

Dr. Hambuchen was recognized at the 2024 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, February 6, 2024, and gave a presentation on her research on Wednesday morning, February 7, at the TAMEST 2024 Annual Conference: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in Austin, Texas, at the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center.

About the O’Donnell Awards:

The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards annually recognize rising star Texas researchers who are addressing the essential role that science and technology play in society, and whose work meets the highest standards of exemplary professional performance, creativity and resourcefulness.

Thanks to a $1.15 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation in 2022, the O’Donnell Awards have expanded to include an additional science award. The awards now recognize recipients in the categories of Medicine, Engineering, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences and Technology Innovation. (Previously, the TAMEST O’Donnell Awards rotated its science award between physical and biological sciences every year.)

The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards are made possible by the O’Donnell Awards Endowment Fund, established in 2005 through the generous support of several individuals and organizations. View a full list of supporters here.


TAMEST was co-founded in 2004 by the Honorable Kay Bailey Hutchison and Nobel Laureates Michael S. Brown, M.D., and Richard E. Smalley, Ph.D. With more than 335 members and 22 member institutions, TAMEST is composed of the Texas-based members of the three National Academies (National Academy of Medicine, National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences), the Royal Society and the state’s eight Nobel Laureates. We bring together the state’s brightest minds in medicine, engineering, science and technology to foster collaboration, and to advance research, innovation and business in Texas.

TAMEST’s unique interdisciplinary model has become an effective recruitment tool for top research and development centers across Texas. Since our founding, more than 275 TAMEST members have been inducted into the National Academies or relocated to Texas.

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