A few weeks ago we took a look at '08 alumna Jill Kiser's adventures with the Naval Underseas Warfare Center in Newport, RI. Now we take a look at the Surface side of things with Andrew Bouchard '07, who is based in Panama City, FL.
What is your job at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) like?
I work on robots for the Navy, developing unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for a variety of missions, but most commonly minehunting. My focus is on the development of autonomy - software that allows the robots to make decisions and act with greater independence from their operator. This is a key need for underwater robots because communications with a submerged vessel are severely limited, so both for the safety of the robot itself and in order to effectively achieve the mission goals, it is crucial that they be able to adapt to unknown or changing environments.
My time is largely split between planning the broader development of autonomy in the program that I work on and actually doing the technical work. I am also providing technical oversight for a foreign comparative test (FCT) right now, and am currently writing from a train somewhere between London and Edinburgh. I've been traveling a lot for meetings, conferences, and work. I really look forward to sea testing events, when we get to go out on the boat with the vehicles to test behaviors, collect data, or look for things that have been lost.
What sorts of things do you work on?
It's such a buzzword that I hate to say it, but the answer is really autonomy. The scope of my job is unfortunately vague right now, and I'm putting together the three-year plan for putting autonomy on the next fleet of vehicles. They currently have lots of automation, but little autonomy, which makes them like really fancy wind-up toys that go underwater and rotely execute a pre-programmed mission unless something goes catastrophically wrong. It's my job at this point to address the development of a framework for this software, identify the first round of capabilities that we will include, and how those capabilities will be developed.
What brought you to NSWC in the first place?
I graduated with a Masters from Vanderbilt in 2009 right when the economy started going downhill, so the job market was not so hot. I knew that I wanted to work on robots, so I contacted Professor Dave Barrett at Olin, who gave me a list of suggestions, among which was the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Newport, RI. While I was applying for a position there, I noticed NSWC had some openings because the Navy lab positions are all advertised via the same system, so I applied there as well. They called me, flew me down for an interview, and offered me a chance to work on robots operating in a challenging environment for a living. I jumped at the chance!
Do you like working for the Navy?
Like any other job, it has its benefits and its disadvantages. I work on robots, which is exactly what I wanted to be doing, and in the area of autonomy, which I think is a great place to be right now. We're pushing the envelope of what these vehicles can do, and finding the next breakthrough is quite a thrill. The travel has been great, but it's getting to be more than I would really prefer. Sea testing is a great change of pace from the usual cubicle life of someone working a lot of software, and I wish that I got to do it more.
I'm very aware of the fact that my job is funded by taxpayer money, and I try to be a good steward of that. I've had some great opportunities to save the government a lot of money by being vigilant in my oversight of several contracts and influencing what I think are some good decisions. Unfortunately, I also have the unique vantage point of seeing the levels of waste and foolish spending that goes on in the government, and it is rampant. Red tape and policy frequently get in the way of good decisions, and arbitrary requirements for training and the like cost a lot of time and money.
Do you use skills you learned at Olin?
Absolutely. These days it's mostly the communication skills that are serving me well - the ability to translate technical information into something understandable by the program managers and policy makers is really important in my line of work. Despite getting my degree in Mechanical Engineering, Olin gave me a solid grounding in electrical and computer engineering, which has been critical to getting up to speed quickly in technical areas that are not my natural specialty but which I still have to understand. The underwater environment is complicated, and I'm taking classes these days to understand the acoustic sensors that we use - without Signals and Systems and Analog and Digital Communications I don't know that I would have passed several of those courses.
What was your most valuable experience at Olin?
My most valuable? How do I choose? My SCOPE project was what really solidified my interest in robotics, and I had to dig into the software side of things, too, which was helpful. I could point to numerous team projects that taught me to work with other people to get things done, and especially those that taught me tricks to get things done despite a difficult team member, tight deadline, or limited resources. I don't think that I could choose one particular valuable experience that stands out among the rest. Olin as a whole shaped me in ways that I am still understanding. I've always liked engineering, but Olin is where I learned to think and apply myself as an engineer, to take on that mantle, and there were far too many steps in that to call any the biggest.
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for current Olin sequence?
Learn to produce. I can't tell you how many important people have been impressed at my ability to get the job done, even when it's something as simple as turning around a budget spreadsheet. You will work with people who waste time, let other people pick up the slack, and take every opportunity to take their ease. Don't be influenced by them.
As you gain responsibility, things will go wrong. You can't help it - something bad will happen that should never have happened and you will have to deal with it. Your superiors understand this, and they are not condemning you for the mistake so much as they are looking at how you will recover. Handle the other people involved with respect, address the technical issues quickly but carefully (don't trade speed for quality and thus create another problem!), be firm in looking out for the interests of your project, and it will serve you well.
Learn to rest. It's hard - there's a whole world of things out there to learn and see and do, but you really can't do everything. I promise, I've tried. You will enjoy life a lot better and do yourself well to spend your time at work working hard and relaxing between.
When he's not working on underwater robots, Andrew Bouchard is also an avid Lindy Hop and blues dancer. He started dancing in the Panhandle (BLIP) in Panama City over a year ago, where he teaches when he's not traveling for work or dance exchanges. This image is a screen capture from a music video that featured Andrew and his dance partner, Sera Russell.