Meet: Daniel Andrews
Controls & Automation Engineer
NASA, Ames Research Center
Who I Am and What I Do
I'm a Controls & Automation Engineer at NASA's,
Ames Research Center, and work in the Systems Engineering Division. My
team's role is to provide engineering and design support for various scientific
missions at the Center. My specific role is as Engineering Lead for the
PSA (Personal Satellite Assistant) vehicle development. Our team is developing
the next generation of PSA robot attempting to provide astronauts a capable
assistant to off-load some of their activities on the International Space
Station, Shuttle or other spacecraft.
I've always had a personal interest in robotics, especially
relating to mechanisms "coming to life" (which is a fancy way
of saying they do what you want them to do). No matter how impressive
a robot, it can be broken-down into mechanisms that are controlled in
an intelligent way.
My role in this effort is to guide a team through
development of this robot. This means we need to survey the world for
computers, devices, sensors, displays, etc. for potential use in our development,
and decide where custom designs are needed. This is the engineering process,
and it's a lot of fun on the PSA Project, because there's nothing like
it in existence.
Preparation for Career
There are really three, separate interests
which came to together in steering the role I have: The fun of constructing
things, combined with the amazing uses of electricity, and the power of
being able to program a computer to do something for you.
Whether it was LEGOs, Erector sets, or homemade construction,
I've always enjoyed building things that would do something - even if
it is just something that walks across the floor. Then in my freshman
year in High School I became fascinated by electronics, instilled quite
frankly by the inappropriate use of electronics by upper classmen demonstrating
the power of electricity. It was clear to me that mastering electronics
could be very, very fun and useful. Finally, when my dad brought home
our first Sinclair computer, I was determined to program my own version
of the arcade game, Space Invaders. With the BASIC programming language
available on this oversized calculator, I suddenly had the means to make
pixels appear on a screen. With a combination of pixels, I could make
shapes. With some logic, I could make those shapes do different things
at different times. I could then make keyboard inputs influence what the
program was doing... This was very empowering, and made me appreciate
the leverage I could get from a computer.
My Career Journey
I have a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering
(San Jose State University) and Master's Degree in Mechanical Engineering
(Stanford University). I ventured into both of these fields because it
really suited my interested in both areas. When I graduated with my EE
degree, I accepted a position at NASA, which really helped to formulate
the direction my career would head. I found myself surrounded by other
mechanical, electrical and controls engineers, who all knew more than
I did (which is actually a good thing).
I have participated in teams of engineers who have designed airfoil wing
manipulators, which enabled scientists to test whole new regimes of aerodynamics.
I've led a team of engineers who automated an entire wind tunnel complex
so that it is completely operated and controlled by a computer system.
Today I find myself working with a team on one of the most intriguing
robotic problems of my career to date, the PSA.
Likes About Career
My favorite part of my job is the interaction with
fellow engineers. I really enjoy sitting with other engineers and trying
to figure our way out of a problem, or to envision a whole new way to
do something. My role on the PSA Project requires this capability, as
the effort has to be steered. There are numerous ways to solve a problem,
and many may work. The trick is to find the solution which best fits your
circumstance, which includes issues of component availability, funding,
My advice to students pursuing a similar career is to keep playing. When
you go to school to get the education you will need to be effective, do
not lose the thing that got you started: That fascination and desire to
play, learn, and explore.
School is where you "fill your tool bag".
It is the place where you learn many things that enable you to be effective
as an engineer. Once you graduate, these "tools" will enable
you to do your job, but you need that drive and genuine interest to carry
you through. Play and experiment.
I remember while getting my ME degree, I created an
automatic window blinds pitch device that would track the sun all day,
slowly moving the blinds to block the sun, and then at night the blinds
would close themselves. I convinced myself this was a really cool idea,
but the bottom line is I was "playing". Believe it or not, there
are aspects of that effort, which still pay-off now. It isn't about the
particulars of what you did; it is about the process you went through
to make it come together. Knowing what you need to do to accomplish something
is one thing, but being able to actually pull it off is another - You
need to be able to deliver. Play.
I grew-up in Livermore, California, attending
kindergarten through high school in the same town. By the time I was attending
Granada High School, I was a pretty accomplished draftsman, winning awards
at the county fair, and even a "Future Achiever" award at school.
So you can image what a pivotal moment it was when my father took me to
his office one day and showed me this new thing called a "plotter"!
This mechanism not only could produce perfect drawings, but in a fraction
of the time of my own work.... This was a pivotal event for me because
it not only illustrated that a machine might be able to do my job, but
I also really wanted to know how that machine worked! This colored the
direction my education took, as I recognized I want to design machines
A Favorite Quote:
A gentleman I worked with on a previous project once
told me, "Your ship doesn't always come in.... Sometimes you have
to swim out to it". He shared this with me at a point in my career
where I was uncertain about the step I was about to take. Translation:
Sometime you just have to go for it.
Last updated June 2009