Chad R. Frost, Intelligent Systems Division’s Area Lead for Autonomous Systems and Robotics, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

NTB: What exactly is a human-powered helicopter?

Frost: Exactly what it sounds like. Trying to achieve vertical flight solely under human power. Everybody probably is familiar with Gossamer Albatross, Gossamer Condor, Paul McCreedy's exciting human-powered airplane projects, and the human-powered helicopter attempts over the years, or really, directly inspired by the successes of the human-powered airplanes. It's arguably a harder challenge to go straight up, and it took us a lot of years and a lot of hard work, just to get a few inches off the ground for a few seconds, and various people have tried over the years to get higher and farther into the air for longer periods of time, but it's just a very difficult challenge. In the last couple of years, I've gone back to universities to talk with a new generation of students who've revived the project. It's really exciting to talk with the kids about this because they haven't figured out just how hard it is, and they're still full of enthusiasm and excitement for it. You learn so much going through the attempt that I would never try to dissuade them. I think it's very exciting to try even if it's an almost impossible task. Certainly, I learned a lot from it. Certainly those who worked on it when I was there did. I was never one of the chief engineers on that project, but I spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears over those 5-6 years that I was involved.

NTB: I'm also interested in some of your early work as an aircraft component designer and manufacturer. Were there any lessons learned that you can apply today?

Frost: My bachelor's degree arrived just in time for a major aerospace industry downturn. Our industry is cyclical as anyone who's been in it for any length of time has figured out, and I ended up finding a job at a very small manufacturing company, which in retrospect, proved to be a great foundation for an engineering career. The company I started out with had three engineers and a total of about 50 people in it, so the engineers really had to be able to do anything, and we were intimately involved in every aspect of the process: the design, development, manufacturing, as well as sales and support. I learned a tremendous amount in the years that I spent at that company. It was a great training ground, and I really enjoyed it. It ultimately led me to go back to school to get an advanced degree, and my faculty advisor had a really good relationship with the folks here at Ames Research Center, specifically in the army, NASA, flight control, and cockpit integration branch, so I ended up working there as a summer student after about 5-6 years in industry. Ultimately, I ended up doing my master's research helping to develop CONDUIT, the Control Designer's Unified Interface, which was a project led by Dr. Tischler from Army,  and that tool went on to win a bunch of awards. It's now used by most of the commercial and government aircraft developers, and that really is what got me into the helicopter flight control design side of things, as well as software and ultimately my career here at NASA.

NTB: What's next for you? What are you currently working on this year? What are your 2011 goals?

Frost: Right now, our biggest goal, given the interesting situation that our industry finds itself in, is to keep the projects we have going through whatever comes in 2011. Obviously, we're waiting to find out the outcome of NASA's budget and how Congress and the president work that out, so that we have a clear direction for the agency in the next few years. Obviously, there's a lot of discussion that has to happen before that's fully resolved, so we're trying to make all the plans that we can with the information that we have so that we can continue to develop the technologies that will be useful to NASA's future roles, missions, obviously to the taxpayer, who ultimately is our customer. Right now, there's a lot of very interesting things happening. First, on the aeronautics side of NASA, as well as science, we're involved in developing adaptive flight control that will someday make aircraft safer and more efficient. We're working on a variety of spacecraft projects that will launch in the next several years and produce very interesting scientific data. We're waiting to see what the future of commercial launch services looks like, and figure out whether we can help out and be relevant to that. So there are lots of challenges, and in those challenges, there's always opportunity.

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