Lessons from Other Worlds

As chief engineer for the Planetary Flight Systems Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Gentry Lee is responsible for the engineering integrity of all the robotic planetary missions JPL manages—including the twin Rover missions to Mars and the Deep Impact and Stardust missions. In a recent phone conversation, I asked the affable Mr. Lee what inspiration he'd take from the NASA missions if he were an industrial engineer.

He quickly responded, "optimization of resources." Engineers can learn much about design efficiency by studying designs created to deal with such resource, size, and weight limitations. (I wonder, would those lessons be particularly applicable for wireless sensor networking, where resource efficiency is also key?)

And Fault Protection, Too
Lee's work at NASA has also inspired him to think about fault-protection systems; that is, systems designed to ensure that autonomous machines do not hurt themselves or the people and things around them. In his keynote address at the upcoming Sensors Expo, June 5-7 in Chicago, he'll paint a picture of "a society in which the idea of fault protection is never far away"—a society that seemingly will involve greater responsibility on the part of engineers.

By the way, though Lee's career has taken him into the depths of space, he is about as down to earth as they come. This creative engineer co-authored four novels with Arthur C. Clarke (all of which were New York Times bestsellers), and was Carl Sagan's partner in creating the award-winning science documentary TV series Cosmos. But he promises that his keynote address will be "accessible, anecdotal, entertaining, and customized"—for you, the engineers and engineering managers who depend on sensors for the success of your designs.