Profiles, Unmanned

Discussing the Evolution of Autonomy with General Atomics’ Chief Engineer

By Nick Zazulia | January 11, 2019
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A ruggedized laptop showing GA-ASI’s expeditionary command-and-control product, enabling automatic pre-flight. (GA-ASI)

Chen Li makes military drones easier and more efficient to control as chief engineer for automation and autonomy for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI).

A Chinese immigrant who came to America from Xi’an at five years old after his father had finished a doctorate in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech, Li grew up with an exposure to the topic but said he “honestly did not expect to go into engineering, let alone aviation or avionics development.” He got a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineer from Duke, but said he thought of it as “a stepping stone to a career in finance.”

Now, he’s figuring out how to control swarms of MQ-9 Reapers.


Chen Li is chief engineer for automation and autonomy at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI)

You weren’t planning a career as an aviation engineer. What happened?

My teenage self was enthralled with tales by Michael Lewis and Hollywood — of the challenging lifestyle of Wall Street. That all changed when I was looking for internships after my first year of undergrad. I landed an internship with Boeing to do web design, and then was moved to the engineering department, which fit my major. This internship opportunity was pretty rare given I only had one year of college under my belt, but it was fortuitous since it led to internships every summer after and, ultimately, full-time employment as an avionics engineer.

Describe your job at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.

My role is to lead the automation and autonomy engineering team at GA-ASI. I am responsible for a team of highly capable engineers working to bring more automation to our platforms while finding unique opportunities to leverage autonomy and artificial intelligence to increase system performance, reduce cost of operations, and improve ease of use.

Walk me through your day-to-day in that role. What different things do you do?

There’s always something new and exciting each day at work. In my role, I am an advocate for the benefits of automation and autonomy. This requires a lot of entrepreneurship skills to work with partners to define a problem, set a vision, and guide execution. The real challenge is ensuring new ventures are not only launched, but also end on-time, on-budget, and are effective in delivering new capability to the company’s unmanned platforms and customers. It is challenging and not every idea makes it, but it’s highly rewarding when a good idea becomes reality.

Beyond solutions architecting, I also directly lead a small engineering team, so I try my best to find time each day to provide them support and guidance on their projects. Lastly, so much of my job is simply about communicating. Communication is a real challenge and that challenge only scales as projects and organizations grow. In this regard, I spend a lot of time keeping abreast of status, reporting issues, and getting help for people when needed.

What stands out as the most fun or interesting project you’ve worked on?

I have been fortunate to have had the chance to work on many interesting projects over the years. One of my first was developing manned-unmanned teaming between Apache AH-64E helicopters and GA-ASI’s Gray Eagle MQ-1C UAS for the U.S. Army. While I did work on the standards committee, developed software requirements, and wrote subsystem specifications, my favorite part of the job was always the system testing at various flight test facilities. It wasn’t glamorous and it was a lot of hard work, but the camaraderie and the feeling of being part of something bigger than oneself will always stick with me.

I really enjoyed getting the chance to sit in the cockpit of the Apache and go to work testing the control functionality from Apache to Gray Eagle during ground testing. Being behind the controls of an Apache was a privilege one had to earn even if the Apache was not flying, and I put in my time to gain that level of trust from the pilots. Working cross-functionally between software engineering, project engineering, and a combined test team made up of pilots, test engineers, and customer representatives, taught me a lot in a very short amount of time.

Is there anything you all are working on right now that you can tell me about?

One of my primary responsibilities is being the chief engineer for our Heresy program. Heresy is a multi-year developmental program aimed at increasing automation and improving the user experience of GA-ASI products. Heresy takes a start-up mentality to defense capabilities development. We find good ideas and perform rapid prototyping to be able to showcase these capabilities. This allows for feedback from internal partners, as well as customer representatives. Following a user experience-based process, we continuously pivot as we find out more and more about user pain points and the customer’s desired requirements. We built and tested expeditionary command-and-control (XC2) for the U.S. Army Gray Eagle. XC2 allows for automated pre-flight, hand-controlled taxi, and commanding of automatic takeoff and landing capability. We’re currently working toward products to support multiple aircraft control and advanced aircraft tasking management with multi-mission control and Metis, respectively.

Do you have any particular goals, things you haven’t gotten to do as much as you’d like or things you’re working toward that you would like to do?

Autonomy has many forms and not all are what’s shown within science fiction or pop culture. There are real benefits to unmanned aircraft and the performance, reliability, and cost structure of unmanned operations for our customers through greater integration of machine learning capabilities. One example of this is prognostics, where we use big data to determine failure trends to predict failures before they occur. The biggest challenge in these areas is to generate interest when the current fielded solution already meets requirements. That said, GA-ASI’s platforms are the most widely used platforms in the world and, as such, the impact of new capabilities is immediate and far-reaching.

Working toward solutions that may change how customers fundamentally utilize unmanned assets is one of the most exciting and motivating parts of my job.

Gray Eagle

A General Atomics Gray Eagle, which has been used for manned-unmanned teaming operations between the Gray Eagle and an Apache AH-64E helicopter. (GA-ASI)

The industry has changed considerably in the last few years, particularly in terms of automation and drones. What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed? How have they affected what you do?

The biggest challenge I have seen is system complexity and the amount of human capital required to operate unmanned assets. As remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) continue to increase in adoption and mission sets, the people required to operate RPA will only grow, which drives logistical and cost challenges for customers. This challenge is largely the reason for the creation of my team; we’re focused on finding means to reduce the factors that contribute to this problem. Some factors we are working to reduce are training time, complex human-machine interfaces, and task differentiation to increase the ratio of automated or autonomous tasks compared to manual tasks.

What are the biggest changes you predict in the coming years?

The unmanned industry continues to evolve and grows significantly each year. It seems more and more commercial applications are being realized for unmanned aircraft. This is generating increasing pressure to define safe but reasonable standards for unmanned aircraft in the national airspace. Furthermore, unmanned aircraft and robotics, in general, will benefit more and more from machine learning and other artificial intelligence methods. Their capacity to augment human operations and decision-making will only grow and become more embedded into our daily lives – not just in defense, but commercially too. As such, the feedback loop between commercial innovation and defense innovation will quicken, with increasing amounts of dual-use technologies and products. The challenge will be adopting the right technologies quickly and in such a way that makes a meaningful impact to the end user.

What do you do outside of GA-ASI? What are your hobbies?

I play a lot of video games. I started when I was young and interested in computers and coding. My videogame habit has not stopped going into adulthood (much to my parents’ chagrin). It has actually had a lot of benefits in that I see commonalities between video game design and user experience-based design for our products. It is not one-for-one, but there are lessons to be learned. Otherwise, I recently started biking with my wife and we are very excited to get more into biking, hiking, and spending more time in nature and away from technology when we’re able. Lastly, I try to read at least a book a month to help maintain the ability to focus, and expand my thinking.

Does your job and background as an engineer bleed into your day-to-day life?

It does! It can be hard to step away from the engineering mindset. I often defend my arguments doggedly and with as many facts as possible. Luckily, I have good friends who are used to it and are equally passionate, which I am very thankful for.

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