_group shot of nine interns and Garry (one intern, Leo, is not pictured) in front of blimps, holding quadcopters and shiny cars_

I collected up all the articles, blog posts, and cool videos about my LARSS summer into one nice, neat page. There's new material there - I've included our project abstract as well as videos of flying quadcopters!

Check it out. You know you want to.


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_My labmates, our mentor, our vehicles, and I_

On the last day of my LARSS internship, NASA EDGE filmed my lab for their Future of Aeronautics episode! It's currently up on NASA's main page in the "Podcasts and Vodcasts" section, and it's available both online and through iTunes. The opening montage has clips of my labmates and I, and the segment about our work starts at 19:18 and lasts three minutes.

I encourage you to take a look!


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Aeronautics Student Forum

Wednesday, August 4th. 10AM. The Aeronautics Student Forum.

My lab is lined up in the front row, fidgeting, exchanging nervous glances. We trade seats between the other students' presentations, taking turns with the laptop to read over the half-done powerpoint.

_four computers in a row on a table_

The motion tracking camera system is set up (we were in the building until 10pm the previous night, testing our hardware and software, ensuring it'd all be ready to demo). One of the cameras lurks beside the white screen, ominous, a constant reminder that it's our turn in an hour, and like or not, we don't have our finalized slides and some of us don't even know for sure whether we'll be speaking.

It was nerve-wracking.

It was also remarkably exciting.

Presentations, preparation, control

I usually plan presentations out to the last sentence. I know I'm not an improv whiz, so I practice my talk out loud over and over. Any slides I have, they're done at least two nights ahead of time. Practice, preparation, organization. No need to worry because I have everything under control.

This presentation at the aero forum was the opposite.

The previous week, to the relief of my labmates, I'd tried to organize everything (the slides, the talks, the demo). But our mentor, Garry, told us not to worry about any of it. He kept repeating that: don't worry. It's just a presentation.

_a white board covered in colorful diagrams_

None of us were convinced.

It wasn't until Garry sat down with me and explained what he had in mind--how he was going to help compile photos and diagrams into a logical order--that I trusted he was right. No need to worry. He had given scores of presentations. He had good ideas. He frequently pulled things together last-minute. It'd be okay.

In short, when he explained that, I consciously relinquished control. I mentioned control (and the lack thereof) in the context of volleyball games with my lab. The same idea comes into play here: Setting perfectionism aside, trusting that someone else is competent enough to get the job done. Teamwork. All that good stuff.

Coming together last-minute

Garry showed up not long after 10AM, printed copies of the finalized powerpoint in hand. As our time slot approached, my labmates and I shuffled discretely through the slides, still worried, still anxious.

Our turn came. We trooped up to the podium, all nine of us. We spoke. Twenty minutes, all told (not too long, really), plus the demo. We explained our newly established Autonomous Vehicle Lab, its capabilities, and what the audience would see in the demo. We flew our quadcopter. We demonstrated object tracking and obstacle avoidance.

It went well. It went better than well: our presentation was splendid.

Everyone knew what to say. Everyone was clear, concise, and comprehensible. Perhaps it was because we were not prepared that we were prepared: rehearsing, in our minds, coherent sentences about our parts of the project. Recapitulating our work with the quadcopters, the DGPS system, the Vicon cameras, the many vehicles and pieces of software. Unsure of what we would need to say, and thus, preparing for the worst.

If not for Garry's persistent "don't worry about it"s, I would never have experienced a presentation this way. I'd have planned out that talk and every one after, never daring take a chance on not preparing enough and not practicing enough. Now I know. Our aero forum talk was proof: Things can come together last-minute.

That said, I think I still like having my slides done more than an hour before the presentation. As engrossing an adventure as it was, last-minute isn't going to become my style.


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_me, in the lab, in front of a computer_

In late July, a solicitation went out to all the Langley summer interns requesting that ten or so people write articles about their summer experiences. It arrived in my inbox alongside the usual selection of notifications, casual correspondence, and informative messages about upcoming activities. I almost passed it by, thinking someone else will respond. It occurred to me, however, that I know how to write. I could thread a story of my summer experiences into an entertaining and cohesive narrative of 500-750 words. So I did.

The article I wrote about my LARSS internship for the Langley Researcher News is up at An Intern's Story: A Time to Test Flying Robots.

I encourage you to take a look!


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A new sport

One of the difficult parts of playing a new sport is that I'm not good at it yet.

My lab played volleyball this summer. Every Wednesday after work, we trotted out to the grass behind the conference center, doing our best not to complain about the humidity and heat. We greeted the other two teams in the league (both of which had clearly played volleyball before--not just in gym class in high school, or, in my case, once during a summer program five years ago), we helped set up the nets, and we began bumping a ball around.

_volleyball sitting in grass beside a brick wall_

Volleyball was not where any of us excelled. Sure, by the end of the ten weeks, everyone in the lab had improved. We could do what might be called a volley. I could be in the right place at the right time to hit the ball, even if the ball then flew off in completely unintentional directions. When I served, the probability that the ball would both get over the net and stay in bounds was greater than chance (if I remembered to stand on the right, that is, because my serves always flew too far left). It was great fun.

It was also frustrating. I knew that given enough practice, I could be a half-decent volleyballer. Instead of the game being a matter of physical skills and pure luck, it could evolve into a complex, strategic battle, with us setting up plays and plotting out how to outwit the other team. But ten weeks isn't quite long enough to get us to that point. (Sometimes, I'm impatient.) We lost just about every match played against the other teams.

Losing is hard to watch

My lab had split into two teams and recruited a few extra interns, so most days, the five or six of us on my team rotated through four spots on the court. This meant that some games, I stood on the sidelines during the game point.

That was difficult.

I had no direct control over whether we won or lost. I had to stand there, watching, as hands missed the ball, as the ball smacked the dusty grass, or flew too far out of bounds. I had no power over how hard my teammates tried (whether they desired to win enough to dive after the ball; whether they were tired and sweaty and just wanted it to be over). I could be a cheerleader, but I could not actively influence the outcome of the game.

That was new.

_two fencers on the strip at the Denver NAC 2005

My usual sport is fencing: highly individual, always solo. When you're on the strip, it's just you. If you mess up, if you lose, you only have yourself to blame. Even in team competitions, you're just adding up the scores you and your teammates have separately acquired. You don't realize, unless you've been part of a team, how important it is to trust your teammates. And that's what made volleyball difficult: because none of us were that good, it wasn't easy to trust my teammates to be there, backing me up, putting in their best effort to win even though the games were casual and couldn't be taken seriously given our level of experience.

The thing about trust is, most times, it has to be earned.

Trust and control

Fortunately for my lab, playing volleyball is not what we did full-time. When working on our summer project--establishing the Autonomous Vehicle Lab--I learned I could trust my labmates to have my back. We all cared about the outcome; we could trust each other to each do our part. Not being in control of every little detail (and occasionally standing on the sidelines) was okay, because I knew my labmates were trying just as hard as I was to debug their programs and get the quadcopters flying.

I guess the moral of the story is (besides the obvious "teamwork requires trust"), if you ever have the chance to play a new sport, do so. You never know what you'll learn.


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