I attended the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Forum on the week of January 8-12. Officially, it was an event for aerospace professionals and students to network and listen to presentations regarding the latest in aerospace technology. The theme for the event was “Seizing the Next Digital Transformation”. Most of the talks I attended were along those lines with topics ranging from “Digital Twins” to human-robot partnerships.
Day One (Jan. 8)
How can aerospace take advantage of technologies that have emerged since the turn of the century? The opening plenary included a presentation on “Digital Enterprise Business Models and Their Impact on the Aerospace Industry” by Dr. Naquib Attia, the vice president of Global University Programs at IBM. His talk mentioned Cognitive IoT, Distributed Ledgers (aka blockchains), and new cloud applications as ways to modernize the ways that the aerospace industry can more proactively handle maintenance, communicate and share data along the complicated network of customers, contractors, and suppliers, and collaborate even when team members might be away from the lab or traveling on business, or are at an event like the SciTech Forum and can find a free moment.
After a brief coffee break, I plunked down to see a presentation on “The Dawn of Digital Engineering.” Panelists included Charles “Chuck” Ward and Brenchly Boden from the Air Force Research Laboratory, Brunon “Dave” Kepczynski from GE Digital Technologies, Caroline Gorski from Rolls-Royce, Michael Grieves from the Florida Institute of Technology, and John Vickers, the Principal Technologist of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, NASA. Outdated technology used by suppliers and smaller subcontractors was listed as a major obstacle to the adoption of new technologies like blockchain apps and virtual reality. This is where I first heard a mention of “digital twins” and “digital threads”. Due to a problem involving the Wi-Fi, I was unable to get a question in. Wi-Fi was destined to be my chief nemesis for most of the week.
(And what is a digital twin, anyway? It’s a way to pair a physical object like a car or an airplane with an equivalent through the use of sensors and collection of user data so that better predictive models can be created. I gathered from the talks throughout the event that digital twins may be a good way to predict when parts will need maintenance.)
Lunch break — the organizers and sponsors were kind enough to provide lunch, which provided me with an opportunity to hand out a couple of cards to potential interviewees — and then C.D. Mote Jr., the president of the National Academy of Engineering gave a presentation on the NAE’s Grand Challenges for Engineering and the Scholars Program.
Then hit the Digital Transformations Disrupting Aerospace Business Models. What’s cool about this one is that Brendan Iribe, a co-founder of Oculus, was a member of this panel, so obviously virtual reality is expected to be a big part of the digital transformation.
Day Two (Jan. 9)
The day started with a touching tribute to astronaut John Young, who had passed away recently, presented by fellow astronaut Pamela Malroy. The keynote session focused on “Data Data Everywhere … The Power and Potential”, which discussed the amount of information available on the Internet and in private networks and how that information can be harnessed. After coffee break, the afternoon focused on the flip side, “The Devil in the Details,” which discussed some of the challenges. Due to the Wi-Fi getting bogged down, or else it just didn’t agree with my laptop, I was unable to respond to the polls or ask a question.
Then after lunch (I missed out on the boxed lunch; phoo), I attended a panel discussion that covered covered how XPrize-style prizes and crowdsourcing can help solve technology gaps. One example: Charles Lindbergh went for the Orteig Prize, not because he wanted the money, but because he wanted to be remembered as the first to cross the Atlantic in a nonstop flight. The size of the prize should match what people who take up the challenge might be expected to spend while pursuing it, but is rarely the entire point if its target audience likes a good challenge. Don’t ignore the legal issues, especially intellectual property rights. But if an organization has a problem that needs solving and don’t have the in-house staff to solve it, prizes and crowdsourcing can be a good way to tackle the problem.
Day 3 (Jan. 10)
“Dude, Where’s My Flying Car?” The panelists suggested that the concept of “flying cars” has been around for decades and some proposals were goofier than others. One of the images included a contraption that looked like a car that had been welded to an airplane (the “ConvAirCar Model 118”). The Taylor Aerocar looked a smidge more realistic. Mark Moore, the Director of Engineering, mentioned that making “flying cars” available to anyone who needs a ride could help resolve gridlock in our current transportation infrastructure and the concept could be implemented quickly because it’s not very resource-intensive. Mark Cousin from Airbus mentioned that there were a few obstacles: Safety, environmental concerns (especially noise and energy requirements), certification regulations, technology, costs, and especially public perception. Perceived safety, self-driving vehicles, noise, and privacy are special concerns when it comes to public perception: Helicopter noise can be a real nuisance, and we’ve all heard that story where somebody shot down a drone that kept intruding into his backyard. Of course Mr. Cousin didn’t miss a chance to plug the CityAirbus and Vahana A3 concepts.
Brian Yutko from Aurora Flight Sciences suggested, “Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. … Dude, where’s my affordable, reliable, rapid, on-demand, seamless, multi-modal transportation?”
Yutko mentioned that the regulatory environment is not necessarily conducive toward the spread of “flying cars” and scale is also a factor. Transportation infrastructure could be thought of as a kind of network that needs to expand to accommodate the widespread use of “flying cars.”
Carl Dietrich, co-founder of Terrafugia, said that the congestion problem costs the U.S. economy 2-4 percent of the GDP every year and is going to get worse as the urban population grows. You’re stuck in traffic and you can’t even read the newspaper or answer important emails while your car drives for you. For all the dreaming about being able to fly over that congested highway and look down at the poor fools stuck in traffic, though, factors like training time, weather, and operating costs keep people from getting their private pilot’s license and owning a Cessna.
That pretty much set the tone for the day with a morning panel on “On Demand Mobility — Enabling Technologies and Capabilities” and an afternoon panel on “On Demand Mobility — Regulatory and Operational Issues.” For the afternoon panel, the Wi-Fi actually cooperated enough for me to get a question in: “How can industry experts effectively communicate with regulators to ensure a regulatory environment that is friendly toward regulation?” The panel’s answer was effectively: “We can’t have competing corporations trying to tell regulators a dozen different things because then regulators won’t know which way to go. We need to speak with a unified voice to educate regulators about our work.” Another attendee or livestream viewer came up with a good follow-up answer: “How far can we get for voluntary self-regulation?” The general opinion of the panel seemed to be that self-regulation might work for some lightweight applications, but the FAA already has varying degrees of regulation based on the size and environmental impact of aviation applications and the same can be true for On-Demand Mobility.
Brief afternoon break, and then we had something fun: an 80th birthday celebration of aviation engineer Bob Lieback. For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Lieback is the engineer behind the Lieback L1003 and LA5055 Airfoils and has had a hand in the education of many of the conference attendees. Among the funny stories told at this event: He once crashed a champion racecar that he had a hand in designing after somehow managing to get it into reverse. A mistake in an equation used for his thesis paper wasn’t caught until years after he graduation. If someone tried to build an airplane using that equation, the wings — naturally, Lieback Airfoils — would have been upside down! But the silver lining was that the “upside-down wings” provided the inspiration for the design element that was added to Lieback’s champion racecar. So one never knows when negative lift might actually be desirable, amirite?
Day 4 (Jan. 11)
The day started on a note that could put aerospace geeks in a good mood: “Welcome to the Holodeck,” presented by Elizabeth Baron, a VR and advanced visualization technology specialist from the Ford Motor Company. Of course, you don’t talk about holodecks without showing a few pictures from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but rudimentary “holodecks” are being used as part of engineering research right here in the 21st century. An engineer with a VR headset can walk around a virtual model of a car, collaborate with teammates sitting in the same virtual model (crude physical mockup is optional) even if those teammates aren’t in the same room or even on the same continent, and then the people in the car can take it for a “test drive”.
Did I hear someone mention “marketing and sales?” You betcha. Imagine being able to look at and test drive a new Ford without any actual car on the premises. You just put on your VR glasses. That would be cool if they can make it feel like the real thing, right? Ford does have to make some tweaks with physics and lighting for its models to make it more realistic, but I could see that happening.
The morning Forum360 was interesting: “Digital Natives Leading the Digital Transformation in Design and Knowledge Environments.” As it sounds like, the people who are going to lead the digital transformation are likely to be the “natives” who are most comfortable with working on, and with, cutting-edge digital technologies.
Again, I was on my own for lunch — and I must mention that Wreckers Sports Bar at the Gaylord Convention Center in Kissimmee has yummy bacon cheeseburgers, BTW. Then I scoped out some of the exhibits in the exhibit hall. The AIAA was auctioning some autographed pictures and books, spacecraft and rocket models, and a picture of a Martian landscape taken from Mars orbit. (Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to place a bid or I most definitely would have bid on the Apollo CSM model or the Mars picture.)
I caught the “Human-Machine Teaming” Forum360. The panel members discussed some of the challenges involved in human-machine teaming. Machines are very literal and will do exactly what you tell them to do, IF they are even capable of understanding what you even meant. Don’t be surprised if there are two markers on a table, you ask a robot to hand you one, and it asks, “Which one?” Also don’t be surprised if it hands you a marker, but doesn’t hand you the eraser too because it doesn’t know that you wanted it.
Another issue: Why do humans trust other humans to do a job but don’t necessarily trust robots to do the same job? It gets back to the issue of public perception mentioned in earlier panels: You hear news that a self-driven Tesla got into a wreck that also involved a human driver, but you never hear about who was at fault in that wreck. You also hear of cases where an automated device messed up because it wasn’t programmed to deal with a contingency or received erroneous input. If you enter a wrong destination into your GPS navigator, of course it’s going to give you wrong directions. How can humans learn how to interact with robots better to get them to assist us with daily tasks like avoiding wrecks in traffic and choosing the best route to where we want to go? As importantly, how can robots evolve to become better able to understand what we want?
I managed to get in a question again: “What do you think of the misconception that humans should stay home and just send robots to explore the solar system?” It got paired with another question: “What advances in human-machine teaming are most important to enable robotics space exploration to be a viable alternative to humans?”
Julia Badger from NASA Johnson Space Center was the only one who answered. “The chief scientist … said, ‘Yeah, a student and I could have done [what the rover did] in a couple of days. … I often hear that our robots go to slow, and I think that’s a thing. … You want your robot to be quicker and react to different things and be adaptive.”
Evening was interesting: “Enhancing the Musical Brain: The Cognitive Exoskeleton Concert,” in which attendees got to try out a headset that could detect their brainwaves. The bass player was a good sport about wearing one and having his brain waves projected on a screen for everybody to see, and members of the audience got to try one too.
Final event of the evening was the “Women at SciTech Social Hour and Keynote.” I overheard one woman at the event mention that there were more men at the event than expected and maybe they came for the free beer. Observation from personal experience: Having a glass of wine in my hand apparently makes me look more approachable. Debra Facktor at Ball Aerospace gave a talk on how women could enhance their careers in aerospace. Part of it was, “Plan your career path, but don’t be too disappointed if you don’t become the NASA Administrator right out of the gate.” The other part is, “There is no single right answer to the question of, ‘What does a successful career in aerospace look like?'”
Day 5 (Jan. 12)
“Serving our Robot Overlords” sounds like a science fiction thing, doesn’t it? However, the opening panel actually wasn’t so much about Skynet as it was kind of a continuation of Human-Robot Teaming. Unfortunately, I am unable to embed a video due to a glitch in Livestream.
Because there was no Forum360 scheduled for the last day of the conference, I slipped into a track talk on the topic of “Cassini Spacecraft Attitude Control Flight Experience.” Cassini went through the “Grand Finale” last year, ending with a dive into Saturn last September. This of course produced some spectacular science, though one thing I learned from the highly technical talks was that any discrepancy between attitude readouts and Cassini’s actual attitude in relation to Saturn could distort magnetometer readouts, which made it difficult to get an accurate reading of Saturn’s magnetosphere.
Boring to describe, but the above videos are informative. If I had to make one recommendation, it would be to make maps for the venue easier to find because Gaylord Hotel and Conference Center is a bit of a maze. I missed a panel I wanted to see because I got all turned around. Otherwise, the AIAA SciTech Forum was worth attending.