Sensors Mag

Lessons from Other Worlds

May 1, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors Sensors

Don't be intimidated by Gentry Lee. While his career has taken him into the far reaches of space (if not physically, then by extension), the man is as down-to-earth as they come.

A keynote speaker at Sensors Expo, June 5–7 (, Lee is chief engineer for the Planetary Flight Systems Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he 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. 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 documentary TV series Cosmos.

The Engineer's Future

In a recent phone conversation, the affable Mr. Lee promised that his keynote will be "accessible, anecdotal, entertaining, and customized"—for you and other engineers and engineering managers who depend on sensors for the success of their designs. He'll take us on a "mind trip through the 21st century," pointing out "what's likely to happen and how to prepare for it."

One of his preparation-for-the-future tools is a list of personal attributes he thinks engineers will need to develop to be successful (and, presumably, satisfied) in our quickly evolving world. Insights he's gleaned from his work on space missions will provide inspiration for the future, too. For instance, he'll talk about fault-protection systems on robots: systems designed to ensure that autonomous machines do not hurt themselves or the people and things around them. 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.

I asked Lee what inspiration he'd take from the NASA missions if he were an industrial engineer, and he quickly responded, "optimization of resources." We can learn much about efficiency by studying designs created to deal with such resource, size, and weight limitations.

Lee will describe his view of manufacturing in the future—and how he expects emerging issues will shape our daily lives—on Tuesday, June 6 at 8:30 am in Chicago.

Grand Challenge Champ

Later that same day (3:30–4:30), attendees will also be treated to a presentation by Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who was thrust into the spotlight on October 8, 2005, when his robotics team accomplished the nearly unthinkable: winning of the DARPA Grand Challenge, the 132-mile autonomous vehicle race that was run across the Mojave Desert. (See my Today at Sensors weblog entry on this at As PBS's Nova episode, "The Great Robot Race" ( describes, Thrun's team differed from its competitors in how it tackled the Grand Challenge: emphasizing on-the-fly software processing instead of hardware.

I hope you'll join me in the audience at Sensors Expo, and that you'll stop at the Sensors booth, too, to share your thoughts and ideas.

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