Coffee Talk: Dr. Allan Steinhardt
Each week, we sit down with a different member of AEye’s leadership team to discuss their role, their view of challenges and opportunities in the industry, and their take on what lies ahead.
This week, we talk with our Chief Scientist, Dr. Allan Steinhardt.
1. You have an illustrious career. You are an IEEE fellow and former Chief Scientist at DARPA and recipient of the US Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service, among other accolades. What prompted you to join a startup at this stage of your career?
It wasn’t something I planned to do – It was opportunistic. When I left DARPA as a Chief Scientist, I became Chief Scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton and we built a Science and Technology business, where we consulted with Chief Technology Officers at many of the Fortune 100 companies. I was consulting for Airbus at the time. Paul Eremenko was the CEO of Airbus Silicon Valley Innovation Center and a former colleague of mine at DARPA. He wanted me to come to the Silicon Valley and identify interesting sensor companies for autonomous flight. I interviewed a lot of companies in the marketplace, and was really impressed with AEye. I saw it as being very similar to some of the more innovative, cutting-edge sensing concepts that I had seen from radar, and so I recommended an investment. Airbus invested, Luis invited me to join the board, and, later, to join the company. Actually, all three of us on the technical advisory board – myself, John Stockton and Blair LaCorte – quit the board to join the company, which I think is pretty unusual in the Valley.
The startup opportunity intrigued me, as I saw it as an opportunity to have a different kind of impact, to change the world through changing the kinds of products that are available. I was involved with some of the early investments in autonomy and LiDAR through DARPA, and like many others amongst my peers I was drawn to the autonomous vehicle commercial market as a result of the DARPA Grand Challenge I interacted with some of the early DARPA internet pioneers, guys like Dr. Vint Cerf who went on to do really cool things in industry as the internet was being born commercially. I see autonomous cars as being a similar disruptive technology. Doing the kind of work that I did at DARPA, but on a commercial scale, seemed very exciting to me.
2. Tell us about your role at AEye.
I have a couple of roles: one of them has to do with the intellectual property, the patent portfolio. I also work closely with our CMO to articulate our value proposition to a non-technical audience. I had a very similar responsibility at DARPA, interfacing with various staffers and congressional committees that needed to articulate the value proposition. I also am intimately involved with the engineers on a daily basis as a mentor, as well as leading brainstorming. I’m pleased that over a dozen of our engineers have been involved in patent generation, so we have a very broad team of innovators. I also work very closely with the system engineers, CTO and chief engineer, and make sure that, when it comes to bids and product specifications, we have compliance in terms of the documentation or the articulated performance.
3. Can you expand upon your teamwork, and how you collaborate on the technical innovation that you’re leading?
There are four groups that I work with. I work quite a bit with the software team, because we have a very agile system, and almost every aspect is subject to software control. We have three levels of feedback on the steering mirrors. Everything has software control parameters to it, so you really can’t just do the engineering. I work very tightly with the software team.
From the engineering team’s perspective, I work mostly with the architects and the system engineers that are trying to characterize and model the system. And then I do a fair amount of interaction with what we call our field application engineers, which are the people that have the most experience with operating our LiDAR as a LiDAR, as opposed to testing individual components of it, and they tend to have the deepest level of expertise and insight into potential ways to improve or to innovate on the system. I spend a lot of time with them and they work very closely with the marketing team, as well.
There’s an interesting synergy between marketing and the scientists. It’s sort of analogous in the military. I found I was much more comfortable working with and talking to what we refer to as operators like Special Forces or other “tip of the spear” kinds of military operatives, than the system engineering acquisition shops, which is typically where you think of engineering taking place. The reason I enjoyed that was that there’s a lot of innovation. The innovation doesn’t stop with the military. Once you have a system, innovation begins, so I’ve taken that philosophy here at AEye, and I think it’s really paying dividends.
4. Having funded hundreds of radar and LiDAR projects over the years, what do you think are some of the most interesting applications occurring right now?
Some of these, I think, might be a little surprising, like geology and limb prosthetics.
LiDAR has been used as a lie detector. You can do 3D mapping of the flow of blood in the brain: the blood flows in the brain to replenish areas where there’s been a great deal of activity, so by looking to see whether activity is present in areas which are associated with imagination versus memory recall, you can infer whether a person is telling the truth or not. That science has also moved into thought-controlled prosthetics where soldiers that have lost limbs have functioning robotic limbs that are controlled by thought, and it’s based on that early work. Those advancements have been very satisfying to me personally.
There are two applications that stand out to me in the world of radar. One of the things that we use radio telescopes for, which is like the passive form of radar, is to measure continental drift. We can measure the drift of continents at the seven millimetre scale, and the way we do it is we steer radar dishes at the Big Bang and take recordings of the radio static from the Big Bang. By analyzing subtle shifts in how that signal is changing, we’re able to measure precisely the drift of continents, which has really changed the nature of earthquake prediction.
Another one is weather prediction. We have a system where you have different radars on different satellites, and you deliberately shoot from one satellite and receive on another through the air. By measuring the fingerprint of the signal, you’re able to get the moisture content in the air along that straw of atmosphere, and then you go through lots and lots of processing and you come up with a three dimensional map of the entire moisture content of the globe. A lot of the work on climate change and weather prediction is based on that.
5. In addition to your scientific achievements at DARPA, Booz Allen, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and BAE/Alphatech, you’ve been a professor (Cornell), and a prolific author and speaker on space, land, and naval-based electronic warfare, sensor, and radar systems. What do you feel personally have been your most important contributions to science?
I am an IEEE Fellow, and received recognition from the Defense Department on what’s called Space Time processing, which is looking deeply into how you combine data from a lot of different positions in space and time, and pull it all together. It’s kind of physics meets computer science and math. So I’d say that’s probably my most important contribution. A true scientist would say, “Well, Steinhardt, he’s not a scientist, he’s an engineer,” so it all depends on who you talk to. I’m not a physicist. I’m not a biologist. But there are scientists that use a lot of the tools that my teams have developed.
6. Finally, what’s your favorite mode of transportation?
It would have to be mountain boots and a rope and an ice ax, when I’m moving up a ridge somewhere with my daughter, who loves to do mountaineering with me. My dad was a mountaineer, too. I also love sailing, and biking. I love being active. I use cars because I have to get to work. But I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Gee, I can’t wait to to turn the key in my car.”