Broadcast 3408 Dr. Ella Atkins

  • The Space Foundation Conference

  • The Space Foundation Conference

  • The Space Foundation Conference

  • The Space Foundation Conference

The Space Foundation Conference

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Guest.  Dr. Ella Atkins;  Topics:  IEEE Robotics & Automation, leveraging tech for space for the future, autonomous terrestrial, air & space vehicles, regulatory oversight, public perceptions/concerns, human spaceflight and more.

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We welcomed Dr. Ella Atkins to the program for a two segment nearly 100 minute discussion focusing on advance AI and robotic usage for here on Earth and in space.  We talked about the leading roles played by great organizations such as the IEEE and AIAA in both advancing technology and education in these fields.  We covered autonomous vehicles here on Earth, in aviation and in space.  For example, we spent lots of time talking about self-driving cars from many different perspectives.  Technology was discussed as was and is the public perception.  We did the same for aviation for both passenger planes and cargo flights, then drones.  Our guest cited many examples but pay attention tour 737 Max discussion, what is happening with general aviation and what could be made available for commercial aviation if the passengers knew about specific safety equipment and demanded it for their airline flights. This discussion covered the majority of the first segment and was very comprehensive.  Autonomous spaceflight vehicles were discussed, including future vehicle for human spaceflight but not what she said about system complexity compared to say self-driving cars.  For all forms of autonomous vehicles our guest addressed the public perception and psychological issues of being in a vehicle without a pilot or driver.  Despite the safety advantages offered, note what was said about public concerns and perceptions. 

Many email questions came in and led to additional discussion topics.  For example, our guest told us about people deliberately trying to fool the programs running self-driving cars.  Such behavior was singled out but of course there has been even worse bad actor behavior than just trying fool software.  That said, our guest pointed to new safety controls that would make it nearly impossible for a 9/11 style attack to take place as a plane could not be flown into a building.  Listen to what she said about many new safety programs and constraints, including the collision avoidance systems.  Note what she said about the need for public demand for some of these features to be placed on our commercial airline flights. 

Autonomous spaceflight was said to not be as prime time ready as what was happening in the terrestrial environment.  As mentioned earlier, Dr. Atkins pointed out that it was probably simpler to do safe autonomous spaceflight than having a safe self-driving car given all the variables needed for the car which would not be needed for spaceflight.  Make sure you pay attention to this part of our discussion.  Of course we welcome your blog posts on the information shared with us by our guest so please post on our blog regarding this program. 

One thing we talked about throughout the program and specifically in the second segment was the use of sensors, redundancy and diversity for gathering crucial operational information.  The speed at which sensors can get information and make decisions was another topic.  Here, we used the launch abort systems as an example.  Note how many times faster the abort sensors can gather information, make a decision and take action over what a human could do.  Furthermore, for diversity in gathering information, our guest used the airplane pitot tube as an example since failed pitot tube sensors had led to airplane accidents.  Now a diverse array of sensors can get operating flight information so the pitot tube is not the only source of this information for the plane's computer and software systems.

Second segment content included more about public perception, technological instrumentation development and specialized safety systems available today even if not being used today.  Ella talked about lots of work in her classes on autonomous docking for spacecraft along with decision making challenges and contingency management.  Another second segment topic mentioned was the fact that astronauts like to have control or the ability to take control.  Listen to her explanation of why this is so. 

As we were nearing the end of our program, I asked Ella about the degree to which our technology was ready to take us to Mars.   This was an important discussion which led to risk taking and why risk taking was important for moving forward.  AI robotic surgery was brought with our guest having much to say about the subject, especially if there was no doctor present to take control of the surgery should a problem develop.  You might be surprised by this part of our discussion.  Yet another late discussion topic focused on AI and robotic job creation rather than job loss.  Don't miss what Ella had to say on this important subject.  In the final minutes of the program, we talked about the contribution to advance AI and Robotics with groups such as IEEE and AIAA plus what happens in bad weather with autonomous controls.  Listen to her commentary about wanting to drive in bad weather as an example but the autonomous system says no. Man versus computer decision making?

Please post your questions/comments for Dr. Ella Atkins on our blog for this show.  You can reach our guest through me or her University of Michigan faculty page,




IEEE and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, robotics in space, space exploration for the advancement of society

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08 Nov 2019 Dr. Ella Atkins
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  • The Space Foundation Conference

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