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Meet: Daniel Andrews

photo of daniel with PSA

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, schedule, etc.

Advice
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.

Personal Information
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 like that.

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

 
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