"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, February 3, 2013

5 Questions for an Aerospace Engineer

To the degree that our daily lives run well, we likely have engineers to thank. So let me introduce you to Justin Bradley, a friend of mine. He is a PhD candidate in aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. Readers, here is your chance to meet one of society’s expert problem solvers. I put five questions to Justin over email, and below are excerpts from his responses.

Jake: Hello Justin. Let’s start by bringing your expertise to bear on something controversial. Revisionist history emphasizes the role of optimism in the success of The Little Engine That Could. But let’s be candid. There were technical reasons he made it over that hill. What were they?

Justin: We could certainly talk about the role of momentum, acceleration, and velocity, inertial frames, the friction of the wheels against the iron, the pressure from the burning of coal to power the pistons which turned the wheels, the law of conservation of energy, the various environmental factors that contributed to all the aforementioned, or the fact that we like to imbue inanimate objects with human characteristics. But ultimately I think we just have to admit that God wanted The Little Engine to make it over that hill so that we could create a fable about it to convince our children that hard work can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles! ;-)

Jake: Today you are an aerospace engineer on his way to a PhD at U-M. Tell us how you got there and what you do:

Laser Bay 2, National Ignition Facility,
Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Justin: I got my BS in Computer Engineering from BYU in 2005. I decided to stay and complete an MS in Electrical Engineering working in the Unmanned Air Vehicle lab there called the MAGICC lab. I knew I wanted a PhD but I wanted to go to a top university to do it. Unfortunately, I didn't get into my top choices in 2007 when I graduated with my MS. So I took a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory working on the control system for the National Ignition Facility. After two and a half years there I got restless for the PhD again, and applied to University of Michigan in the Aerospace Engineering Dept. I now work in the Autonomous Aerospace Systems Lab (A2Sys Lab) there focusing on Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) research. ...
"Computer systems are increasingly controlling and operating the physical devices in our world."
Jake: Let’s connect your lab work to any given person whom you’ll never meet but who will benefit from it. How does your research transfer to the world off-campus?

Justin: Computer systems are increasingly controlling and operating the physical devices in our world. The computer in your car probably regulates the air/fuel mixture, the flow and rate of exhaust, it may decide when to turn on/off your lights, and if you have a new car, it may even be able to park itself. All these things require the interaction of a computer and a physical device. Historically, those two worlds, the computer world and the physical world, have been kept separate in a theoretical sense. That is, computer scientists make idealistic assumptions about the nature of the physical device the computer is controlling. Similarly, controls engineers make idealistic assumptions about the operating nature of the computer system. This leads to inefficiencies, and sometimes problems, when those assumptions fail to hold (and they always fail to hold to one degree or another). A new area of research, Cyber-Physical Systems, was created to address these concerns and increase our ability to design for the computational and physical systems together, paying particular attention to the interconnection and interdependence between those systems.
"If I'm being truly honest, my fall back plan would have been to become an auto mechanic, or a semi-truck driver. "
Jake: If you weren’t an aerospace engineer, what other branch of engineering might you focus on and why?

Justin: When I'm done here, I'll have four degrees spanning three relatively large branches of engineering - computer, electrical, and aerospace. The overriding theme among these three, in my career, has been systems engineering, and ultimately, I consider myself a systems engineer more than any of the others. If I had to pick a different engineering track, I would choose mechanical engineering. I love learning about how things work, and one of the weaknesses in my career has been the lack of understanding of mechanical processes such as heat transfer, thermodynamics, structural engineering, etc. But if I'm being truly honest, my fall back plan would have been to become an auto mechanic, or a semi-truck driver. I love cars, and I love to drive!

Jake: Astrophysicists often express profound wonder for the universe. Does engineering have a similar romantic component? Why or why not?

Justin: ... Aerospace and electrical engineers really have a romantic view of mathematics, and proofs. We pride ourselves on the certainties of mathematical proofs, often at the expense of creativity and pragmatism. It's easy to see why - you don't want your airplane to fall out of the sky because you relied on something that "just worked," but not entirely understood, rather than on something that was provably correct. Our conferences and journals have a profound respect for an elegant proof of a mathematical theorem, and sometimes this tends to become the goal. ...
"For me, there is a real sense of awe when I see something that has obviously been very well designed and engineered."
In addition, for me, there is a real sense of awe when I see something that has obviously been very well designed and engineered. ... When you've been involved in the design and creation of a real working product you gain tremendous respect for the amount of hard work, late nights, and intense testing that such masterpieces demand. Conversely shortcuts, cheap tricks, and lazy engineering are rather easy to spot and become a source of frustration and disdain.

Jake: Thanks to Justin for his thoughtful responses and for being the guinea pig in my first attempt at a blog interview.

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