A talented blend of software and aerospace engineering

When two high-profile air crashes prompted the FAA to give airlines until 2019 to start training their pilots to recover from stalls, Robert Watts and his colleagues knew that airlines would not want to change their flight simulators. Working at Bihrle Applied Research, a 26-person company in Virginia, they came up with the idea of loading aerodynamic models into a small computer that could be plugged by Ethernet cable into a simulator. The devices are called StallBoxes, and in April an Alaska Airlines simulator equipped with one became the first airline simulator to be qualified for full stall training by the FAA. Watts wrote the code that enabled the first StallBox to interact with its host simulator.

How did you become an aerospace engineer?

I remember early on marveling at how a massive aircraft could be suspended in the air. Even as a kid, you understand that doesn’t really make sense. I started learning the science of how things actually work and about the technology that drives aviation including flight control systems. In high school, I took a computer science course that got me involved in software development. When I went to Georgia Tech, I went in undecided, but had this feeling I wanted to do something in aviation. I opted to do my bachelor’s degree in computer science. I was attracted by the breadth of applications since pretty much everything uses software. I spent four semesters working at Intellisync Corp. and had a summer internship at Microsoft testing its exchange server. I enjoyed my time at Microsoft and I was tempted to go there full time, but working on planes and helicopters was so much more exciting to me than delivering email. So I stayed at Georgia Tech and got my master’s in aerospace engineering. I joined Bihrle Applied Research in 2010. Having the ability to understand problems and create solutions is unique from some of the folks who only have an aerospace degree. To be able to see and understand the software side and have the master’s degree in aerospace gives me domain-focused, specific knowledge that some software engineers don’t have. It’s that combination that’s really been critical for me in fulfilling the role I have now.

Imagine the world in 2050. What do you expect to see in aviation?

I think we will have aircraft that are faster and cleaner, smarter and cheaper. But I think particularly about the impact technology will have on the role of pilots. 2050 is 33 years from now, so look at how far we’ve come in the past 33 years and how the role of a pilot has changed. We will continue to struggle with the balance of allowing the technology to do what it’s good at, to be precise and efficient in flying, navigating,communicating, but also keeping the pilots in the loop during flight, keeping pilots prepared to use their skill and judgment when the need for that comes up. I don’t necessarily think that we’ll be to a point where we don’t need pilots. Of course, with my experience with StallBox, I think technology will continue to evolve in the way that pilots are trained because as their role changes, pilots need to be prepared for things that very rarely happen and will happen even more rarely in the future. But as a dreamer, I do think we will see a lot more unmanned aircraft. I dream of having a more personal flight vehicle. Will it happen in 2050? We’ll see. ★

A talented blend of software and aerospace engineering