Persistent Systems engineer Ben Wring has been enchanted by the "romance of aviation" since his childhood trips to United Airlines' San Francisco International Airport maintenance facility, where his uncle and grandfather worked as machinists.
"For years, I remember walking in as a kid to the main facility," he said. "In the lobby, they had these great big, 6- or 7-foot murals of the history of United in San Francisco, and a couple of those large murals included my grandfather. Imagine you're 12 or 13 and you walk into this lobby and you see your grandfather's picture up on the wall. It was pretty amazing."
After high school, Wring signed up for the Marines. That afforded him the opportunity to work on Harrier jets as an avionics technician.
Wring figured when he left the Corps. he would get a job at United Airlines, like his family, or maybe Boeing. Instead, he got offered a position at the Naval Postgraduate School in familiar Monterey, California. That post led him into robotics and the drone industry, setting the stage for his current work, pioneering the field of networking for unmanned systems as a senior program engineer at Persistent Systems LLC.
Wring spoke to AVI about networking, how the drone industry has evolved and how close he came to dooming us all by building Skynet.
I know how you came to love aviation and engineering. How did you get to Persistent?
One of the key things about me making the decision to come to Precision Systems was, when I was at the Naval Postgraduate School is when I met the co-founders, Drs. (Herbert) Rubens and (David) Holmer; they were still finishing up PhDs at Johns Hopkins. It took Dr. Rubens quite a few months to convince me that they had cracked the nut on this mobile ad hoc networking piece that we work on now.
One of the things that the faculty had put out to our research group – and to me in particular, because I was the only [Insitu] ScanEagle-trained pilot at the school – was to find a wireless network capability that would allow us to interconnect different heterogenous vehicles. We had unmanned planes, manned aircraft – both fixed and rotary – there were a lot of robotic vehicles on the ground, boats being developed, and the one piece that was lacking was a network that joined all of those heterogeneous systems together.
So, we went and had lengthy conversations with Harris and Rockwell and Sierra Nevada, ITT and Exelis before they were bought by Harris. I remember telling [Rubens and Holmer] once, "I hate to be a doubter, but we've literally talked to every company in the U.S. that does this on a daily basis. We've even spoken to Cisco and Motorola. And you're telling me that two really smart young PhDs from Johns Hopkins have figured out what 1,000 years of engineering knowledge and know-how has not been able to put together?"
When I started flying their wave-relay technology, I really kind of did it out of spite. I figured let's just appease these guys, and we can check the box and say we tried it and move on. Fast-forward to 20 years later, not only am I a huge advocate, but now I work here.
What specifically do you do in your role at Persistent?
I have mainly a defense focus on our contract side. What I provide is oversight and guidance for everything from antenna selection to, if we found out we have to do some crazy-long RF cable runs, making sure our younger staff are guided in the right direction, following the right specifications.
The other thing that I do is provide assistance with strategy, working with our contracts team and our business development team to help them interpret requirements as they come out, helping customers understand what the real-world results would be. If they are going to have an airplane go fly away at 100 meters, what kind of capacity do they have with the network; a lot of link budgeting.
Over the last year or so, my team has been able to develop new aviation antennas for [multiple-in, multiple-out] MIMO-based systems. Whether its Wi-Fi or mobile ad hoc systems like ours, there's not a lot of options for antennas in the aviation world. There are people that make antennas, but providing assistance and guidance as far as testing and evaluation for things that are off the shelf and developing internal requirements for antennas that work; that's been something that I've been pushing for pretty big [since] I've been at Persistent.
Why is the MIMO architecture important?
In a MIMO architecture, our customers can be a little all over the map, but there's a couple basic things they don't know or don't think about. Folks see we have a MIMO architecture, and they want to put antennas all over the plane. What they forget is, with MIMO, you don't want a diversified antenna system, you want antennas that work together. Finding antennas that provide that capability, especially in one package – you can take two or three and put them on the bottom of a plane, and that may work, but from a maintenance standpoint, that can be a pain point. You have to run RF cables, and it might be easy to get to one point and not another. [It's about] keeping a mindset of: If it breaks, somebody has to work on it.
Is there anything you are working on right now that you can tell me about?
We have a lot going on that I can't talk about right now. [laughs]
In general, we're developing an ecosystem of partners. One of my focus areas with that is actually with UAV companies and sensor companies and, as applicable, there are some manned aviation companies that are very interested in working with us. Bringing from a strategic perspective, that is definitely something that I am focused on and continue to work with our C-level leadership.
What's the most memorable project you've worked on?
I mentioned earlier that we were tasked with making different robotic vehicles work together [at the Naval Postgraduate School]. That was a challenge because there wasn't a common networking architecture that brought them all together. Autonomy, robotics, UAVs – there was a big Hollywood flare. Movies like "The Terminator" and, later on, "I, Robot" with Will Smith – they sort of fantasized autonomy in general. We would joke from time to time that we were working on the early stages of Skynet by making all these things talk and work and interact together to go and accomplish a task.
Where is the biggest demand from customers?
Our defense customers always want to have the best full-motion imagery. They want to get the best video quality they can out of whatever sensor they have an on aircraft. When you think of voice communications, you think of [very-high frequency/ultra-high frequency radios] VHF/UHF on an airplane.
What's interesting is people think of us as a radio company and a networking company, and they don't always think about us providing audio. We have a native audio capability on our MP5 hardware. What I've done with that is the same thing we do with traditional VHF/UHF radio: tied our audio into their intercommunications systems. They always comment that the audio quality is better. They don't have that static-y breakup or the squelch that you might get over a traditional [land mobile radio], it's clear and crisp. It's pretty satisfying to hear that kind of thing.
How have you seen the industry change in the last five years?
We kind of predicted this: Over the last 5 or 6 years, we started developing our current product, the MP5, about that time, maybe just slightly prior to that. We knew it was going to massively change the market for us. We knew this because we were adapting the latest and greatest in capability without the physical interface. The physical radio interface was changing, going from a single-in, single-out, traditional wireless architecture to a MIMO architecture. That, along with our networking algorithms – we knew that was going to be a game-changer and it's nice to be right, right? We knew it was going to be big. I don't think that all of us had maybe an appreciation for how big that was going to be.
Try to double-down on the predictions. What do you see if you look five years into the future?
What will be really interesting to see is related to regulatory requirements. I think that there's a lot of things out there in the wireless world that are being adapted for aviation, and some work well and some don't. As the FAA and the FCC and [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] start looking at it, the FAA has the very difficult problem of figuring out how to safely integrate unmanned operations with over 100 years of manned aviation. And we've seen that mature over the last few years, especially with licensing and commercial operations with commercial drones
One of the hardest things we had to tackle was getting a manned airplane to talk to an unmanned airplane. It's still a problem today, even. Some of the smaller UAVs that people use are hand-launched or a quadrotor, they can't carry an ADS-B transceiver. How do you enable everybody to communicate so you can do collision avoidance or flight planning? Especially in real time.
Switching gears. What do you do outside of Persistent? What are your hobbies?
I love to barbecue and cook. My family is notorious for experimenting and having fun with food in general, and barbecue is definitely one of those passion areas of mine. I live up in the Northwest, Columbia River Gorge, so being outdoors is huge. Thousands of hikes. As my kids have gotten older, I force them to turn off the cell phones and get outside a little.
Does your job and background as an engineer bleed into your day-to-day life?
I've tried pretty hard over the years to separate work and family. What's interesting with my position is I work remotely. I travel a bit, but, because I work remotely, my day-to-day and work life have converged. There was a big fire, the Eagle Creek Fire, in the gorge two summers ago, and I got a phone call late one night. Some colleagues were flying an airplane and trying to get video down to folks that needed to monitor the fire, so I got a call and we packed up some radios and went out to their hangar and made it happen. It intermixes now a lot, actually.
I do [fly drones recreationally]. We used to be more active in it, but, just as the kids get older, they get more involved in athletics and things like that, so its sort of tapered off a bit. I'm actually staring at a couple helicopters sitting on the shelf.
Do you have a networked, smart home?
Actually, not as much as people think. You can go to Lowe's or Home Depot and get thermostats to connect to the Wi-Fi, but I tend not do that. Some of my friends chuckle at that, because they check out our website and see that we did something cool at work and they're like, "why don't you do more of this at home?"
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