Before explaining his work on the Mars Rover, I ask him how he arrived there. Giuseppe is just over thirty years old and is already covering a role coveted by everyone in his sector. He sits on the closest fake Martian stone, and begins.
He is still a student of engineering in Ancona in his second year, and what he is holding is not the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics: he is reading Focus, a popular magazine in Italy. In it, he discovers that the European Space Agency (ESA), is facing increasing troubles in developing the software necessary to manage the Mars Rover in real time. The issue sticks in his mind all day and all night. He spends a month working on mathematical models and algorithms and finally thinks he has developed something worthwhile. He burns a CD and sends everything to the ESA via traditional mail, soon forgetting all about what he thinks is no more than a child’s game. After a few months, his father opens the post and throws a letter from ESA in the bin, thinking it an advertisement for a new supermarket. Giuseppe hears the name of the agency in time and retrieves the letter. He reads that the general director of the software department is inviting him to work for them for six months, as his proposal makes sense. A lot of sense.
Giuseppe answers saying he is still a student, but the ESA wants him at all costs: you will work as an intern then, as soon as you come and work for us.
After that, he could not stop; he was working at the ESA but wanted also to attend a Ph.D. in York. The obstacle was its huge cost. Giuseppe was full of ideas though, in particular for critical systems, a topic between informatics, engineering and psychology. Such systems cannot afford to make mistakes, not even in 0.0001% of cases, due to the high risk involved in their operational situations. He wondered how a brain, either artificial or human, functions in such conditions, and how humans interact with these systems in a plane or a space shuttle. He thought about how to allow a pilot to choose the right sequence of actions, when he has no more than thirty seconds to save his life. He sent all his ideas to one of the most famous professors in the sector, a teacher at York who was fascinated and rapidly found the funding Giuseppe needed.
Meanwhile, Airbus won the tender to build the Mars Rover and started the construction at the periphery of London. They needed an architect for the project and chose Giuseppe. He was not yet thirty years old and was working exactly where he wanted. To do so, he accepted to lead a double life.
During the day he works at the Mars Rover for Airbus in Stevenage, north of London. When he is finished there for the day he jumps on a train, goes to York and conducts his experiments at night. He often involves pilots who spend hours in simulators in complete darkness, «I make bad things happen to them». At night he writes down the results for his doctoral thesis. He sleeps at the weekends. After two years he has completed everything, and survived.
«My obsession is how intelligence works». On this topic, the ExoMars is the natural outcome of his work. Giuseppe has now to develop the software that will enable the Mars Rover to take decisions autonomously for the first time. It should be smart enough to look around, find scientifically relevant spots, reach them and conduct experiments there. «For a man to distinguish between one rock and and another is very easy» he says, lifting one of the rocks from the red sand they use to test the validity of their algorithms. «For a machine, this is something that needs to be built from scratch». This is why he analyses the way man reasons, taking inspiration for robotic applications and interplanetary exploration. Hence why he started and has continued for years to study the transmission of information on the human neurocortex.
As he moves naturally in his clothes like an Oscar Wilde on Mars, I think again about his style, so eccentric and exceptional. I ask him then why he works like this, dressed every day as an old style gentleman:
— Photo: Giuseppe Montano working on the new Mars Rover prototypes on the Mars Yard.