Tuesday, July 11, 2017

2017-07-10: Autonomy Incubator Welcomes Crime Author Patricia Cornwell

The Autonomy Incubator is a popular stop for visitors to NASA Langley. Over the years, figures such as the mayor of Newport News, the Flight Commander of the First Fighter Wing from joint base Langley-Eustis, and even former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden have come by Building 1222 to see our UAVs dodge trees and deliver 3D printed bananas. Today, we flew and Danced-With-Drones just like any other tour day in the Ai, but this time, the audience was international best-selling author (and avid helicopter pilot) Patricia Cornwell.

Patricia Cornwell arrived punctually at 9:30, still clad in her flight suit from landing her Bell 407 JetRanger on-Center just minutes before.

Danette Allen and Patricia discuss some of the challenges facing autonomous flight.
Power lines and moving ground vehicles, for example, are difficult obstacles to detect
and avoid, even for humans. 

"I don't know if you remember, but we've met," Ai lab head Danette Allen said. Patricia toured Danette's previous lab, a virtual reality rapid-prototyping initiative, before Danette started the Autonomy Incubator.

"I do! It was October twenty-second, 2007," Patricia responded. "You know how I know? I found it in my journal."

Danette Allen and Kerry Gough walk Patricia Cornwell through a VR
crime scene in the Mission Simulation Lab (MiSL) at LaRC in 2007

"I have carbon fiber envy," Patricia said during her tour of the Hive vehicle.
Danette explains how CICADA gliders navigate autonomously.

Patricia asked a slew of questions about everything from obstacle avoidance to the nature of autonomy, relating some of her own experiences as a helicopter pilot and the things she'd seen on tours of other NASA centers. In addition to recording the entire visit for her own use, she took copious notes in a small orange notebook, jotting down everything that caught her interest– including the name of the Ai's management support assistant, Carol Castle. Perhaps we should keep an eye out for Carol's name in any future Kay Scarpetta books?

After a thorough introduction to the Ai and the work we do, Danette brought Patricia into the flight area to meet the team and see our research in action. First up was Ben Kelley, presenting our classic Dances with Drones object-avoidance demo.

Patricia was especially interested in how we track Ben's location through fiducials on his hat.

Next, Ben and Loc Tran demonstrated the 3DEEGAN object detection and classification system.

"I hope it sees me as a person and not an alien," Patricia joked. Don't worry, it did– although we'd like to think that if a friendly extraterrestrial landed at NASA Langley and wanted a tour of the Ai, we would happily oblige. We are a space agency, after all.

Patricia compared browsing our wide selection of custom UAVs to being in
a Ferrari dealership. We think they're pretty cool too.

Finally, we closed the day by flying a miniaturized version of our package retrieval mission– always a crowd-pleaser.

Ben explains the visual odometry running onboard the vehicle to detect the package.

Today's visit was so successful that we might expect a return visit from Patricia Cornwell in the future. With her infectious enthusiasm for all things aviation, she's welcome at the Ai anytime.

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