MARS Conference

Click for larger image

The annual MARS conference is a cross-domain event aimed at sharing ideas across the rapidly growing fields of Machine learning, Automation, Robotics, and Space. Hands-on learning and emerging technology demonstrations form the majority of the event, with opportunities for attendees to meet and learn from each other. The invitation-only event is hosted by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and has led to the creation of a similar conference for the general public called re:MARS.

After returning to Seattle from our snowshoe trip to Mt. Rainer, we did a quick “turn-and-burn” to send James to the airport to fly to Santa Barbara for the MARS conference. Highlights of the event included human flight via jet pack, many innovative robots, and a discussion of their recent space flights with Jeff Bezos and William Shatner, who portrayed Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series. Perhaps the most unusual demonstration was “Dr. MegaVolt”, whose 8.5-ft (2.6m) Tesla Coil is pictured above delivering a one million volt arc to his partner. James found the conference super-interesting, and we’re both looking forward to attending re:MARS in late June.

Below are highlights from March 27th through 30th. Click any image for a larger view, or click the position to view the location on a map. And a map with our most recent log entries always is available at

Click for larger image
Lake Youngs
The distinctive shape of Lake Youngs is used as a visual checkpoint for pilots flying into nearby Renton Airport. James took this picture on his flight south to the MARS conference near Santa Barbara, CA.
Click for larger image
Mt. Rainier
James back at Mt. Rainier, this time flying over, about six hours after we left the area this morning by car.
Click for larger image
Passing over Applegate, OR en route to the MARS conference near Santa Barbara, CA, with Applegate Lake in the distance. In 2001, the Applegate Valley wine area became the 6th official Oregon wine appellation.
Click for larger image
Ovation of the Seas
Our “pet cruise ship“, Ovation of the Seas, performing a pirouette off Pier 66. The ship arrived this morning and moored bow to the city, then turned around later in the day, presumably to allow shore-side access to the other side of the boat.
Click for larger image
Shatner and Bezos
William Shatner, who portrayed Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series on stage at the MARS conference with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Jeff’s brother Mark (not pictured) discussing their recent space flights. Bezos was a big Star Trek fan as a kid and in a moving moment told Shatner “when I was young, you gave me the gift of space and I’m happy to return the favor”.
Click for larger image
Jet Pack Human Flight
Richard Browning demonstrating the Daedalus Flight Pack he invented that can achieve altitudes of 2,000 ft (610 m). The company Browning founded, Gravity Industries, has research contracts with military customers, demonstrates all over the globe, and has plans to commercialize jet pack flight. UK-based Great North Air Ambulance Service currently is training a medic with the jet pack to allow them to reach remote accident victims in 90 seconds instead of up to 30 minutes.
Click for larger image
Associate Professor Kiju Lee leads the Adaptive Robotics and Technology (ART) Lab at Texas A&M University. One of their more interesting projects is the DARPA-funded adaptive Wheel-and-Leg Transformable Robot project α-WaLTR. This project tackles the problem that wheeled vehicles can only climb small stairs (relative to wheel size), while legged vehicles are capable of handling much larger stairs, but are less efficient and usually slower.

In this innovative design, a wheeled robot operates at fast and efficient speeds and when it encounters an obstacle the wheels passively open up into legged appendages. These appendages have far larger radius than the original wheels, giving them more climbing ability and much higher traction.

Click for larger image
Zoox demonstrated their innovative “built for riders not drivers” vehicle that will form the basis of the Zoox driverless metro taxi service. The car has numerous innovative features including being bidirectional and supporting 4 wheel steering, and it’s optimized to support driverless operation with sensor packages on each of the vehicles 4 corners.

Late last year James got an opportunity to enjoy a 20 min drive through San Francisco in an early Zoox test vehicle operating driverless. It’s impressive how far driverless operation has come in such a short period of time.

Click for larger image
Agility Robotics
The Albany, Oregon-based Agility Robotics design team posing with Digit, their bipedal robot. Digit is targeting repetitive human work that can be more cost effectively and safely done by a robot. Rather than redesigning the workspace to fit the robot, they produce a robot that is able to work safely around people and can take on process paths designed for humans.

James spent more than an hour with the team and they demonstrated Digit walking across a golf course down into a sand trap and then back up the steep, poor-traction edge back onto the green. They showed how stable it was to external forces and how good its balance was when jumping. This is pre-production work, but it is already quite impressive. Here’s a video of Digit at work:

Click for larger image
Dava Newman, Director of the MIT Media Lab, demonstrated BioSuit at the MARS conference. Shown at right, BioSuit is a lightweight, easy-to-work-in, skin-tight, pressurized space suit. To the left of BioSuit is an Apollo program space suit that is both cumbersome to work in and weighs in at 180 lbs (82 kg) (on earth).
Click for larger image
Robotic Dolphin
Edge Innovations CEO Walt Conti demonstrated a robotic dolphin at the MARS conference. Conti has done amazing special-effects work over the years in many well known movies including The Perfect Storm, The Deep Blue Sea, Anaconda, The Abyss, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home so it’s no surprise that he and the team have produced an amazingly life-like robotic dolphin. But seeing this creation swimming in a pool and interacting with guests along the pool edge is way beyond a special effect. If it weren’t for the power cord trailing behind the dolphin, it’s hard to tell it’s a robot even when standing only a foot away. Amazing work.
Click for larger image
Dr. MegaVolt
Dr. MegaVolt” Austin Richards and “Mistress MegaVolt” Victoria Charters on stage in thin metal mesh suits at the MARS conference. Richards, who holds a Ph.D. in particle physics, designed the 8.5-ft (2.6m) Tesla Coil that is delivering a one million volt arc to Charters.
Click for larger image
James flying over downtown Seattle on his return from the MARS conference near Santa Barbara. The Space Needle is slightly right of center, and our two-tower apartment complex is near the right edge. The southern end of Lake Union is at left, with Lake Washington and the 520 Bridge in the background.
Show locations on map Click the travel log icon on the left to see these locations on a map. And a map of our most recent log entries always is available at


If your comment doesn't show up right away, send us email and we'll dredge it out of the spam filter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.