Featured Engineer

Interview with Bob Davidson

Bob Davidson

Bob Davidson - Chief Engineer at Ambient Sensors, LLC

How did you get into electronics/ engineering and when did you start?

I developed an early interest in ham radio watching my dad. I also grew up near Hanford, WA where my dad worked and so was exposed early on to a major scientific facility. I was first licensed as a ham when I was 11 years old. In high school I worked at the local TV shop and then got my First Class Radio Telephone license when I was 17 and started working for the local two-way radio company in my hometown (Kennewick, WA). I’m lucky in that I’ve always known what I wanted to do and had good mentors along the way. My dad of course had the largest influence but also a older ham radio mentor, Ralph Hinshaw who was also a retired Bonneville Power microwave engineer, and Glenn Hower who taught EE and Brook Knowles who taught physics at Washington State University.

What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?

I enjoy well made tools as much for the aesthetic values as the function; so I enjoy my old school Stripmaster wire strippers as much as my new Rigol digital scope. One thing I am excited about is how much function you get these days for a dollar in the new test and measurement tools available like the Rigol scope.

What are your favorite software tools that you use?

I use a number of different software tools, too many to mention them all. What stands out in my current work includes tools like Eagle and LPCExpresso. Uniformly, what I am excited about is the capability you can get now, both in terms of performance and cost. The barriers to entry into an area like embedded systems now are primarily about developing skills and thinking creatively and not so much about how much money you have. Things that 20 years ago could only be done in the labs at the largest corporations can be done on a desk top in your home. The same thing can be said about many aspects of hardware development. I think social media tools will become increasingly important in engineering (already is). I’m currently active on twitter @wa7iut and on Google plus as well as a blog I run, http://www.ambientsensors.com

What is on your bookshelf?

I have 100’s of engineering books accumulated over the years but what I’m reading now includes “The Definitive Guide to the ARM Cortex – M0” by Yiu, “Interconnecting Smart Objects with IP” by Vasseur and Dunkels, and “Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play” by Khalsa and Illig.

What has been your favorite project?

I’ve worked on quite few good ones over the years. One of my favorites is my first project at HP to develop a heterodyne interferometer that could monitor the roll, pitch, and flying height of recording heads in disc drives with 0.1 nm resolution and 500kHz bandwidth. That was a lot of fun. Over the years I’ve gravitated toward projects in the early phase where things weren’t very well defined but I have taken projects into large scale manufacturing, which has its own excitements and challenges. I like to do a diversity of things, which is the fun part about my current involvement in sensors and sensor networks because includes everything from the physics of sensors through writing code for microcontrollers, rf, and wireless networking.

Do you have any note-worthy engineering experiences?

I think working at HP Labs and HP’s Disc Memory Division helping evolve disk drive technology from machines that were the size of washing machines (in fact one used a washing machine motor to spin the disks) and stored only 100 Mbytes to machines now that are small as a match box and hold several terabytes of storage was pretty good. It also gave me a lot of perspective on how technologies evolve and how new technologies struggle and sometimes replace entrenched technologies. In fact, I got to host Clayton Christiansen when he came to HP as part of his Ph.D. research on disruptive technologies that later became the subject of his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Of course, actually getting to meet and talk with both Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard was an amazing and not too uncommon experience for engineers at HP back in the day. I have an HP-300 audio oscillator that was the original product that launched HP and got them both to autograph it for me the last time they were up in Boise together.

One of the more fun recent engineering projects involved advising and helping chaperone a bunch of young Boise State University engineering students to NASA Johnson Space Center to fly an experiment they developed on NASA’s Zero-G airplane. One of the other leaders of the group was Barbara Morgan, a former shuttle astronaut and teacher in space. We really saw a lot of NASA on that trip that’s not normally accessible to outsiders and also saw how life changing for some of the students the whole experience was. I think also that teaching, both informally and formally, has been a great experience, especially when a student comes up to me years later and tells me how much they appreciated my efforts.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on building my business, Ambient Sensors. It is a bespoke electronics design house, focused on sensors, embedded systems, wireless sensor networks, and electromagnetics. We provide consulting and works for hire in these areas. We work at the interface between the real world and the interweb! One of our biggest current projects is ramping up production on a impact indicator for football and other sports developed by us for Battle Sport Science. It uses an ARM MCU and mems based accelerometers to alert (by flashing a very bright red LED) when an impact to the players head is greater than a threshold where there’s a 50% chance of concussion.

What direction do you see your business heading in the next few years?

I would like to see it continue to grow in the wireless sensor and energy harvesting powered sensor network space. There are so many applications and exciting emerging sensor technologies that I think we’ll be busy for many years to come.

What challenges do you foresee in our industry?

The biggest challenges will be navigating the difficult economic/political conditions that are facing our country and the world today. It’s important to work on problems that are important and not to get distracted by the trivial. (See Tim O’Reilly’s blog on this) There are so many ways engineering can contribute to saving the world and making it a better place if we’re just allowed to do our work. The other challenge in our environment is the rampant populism that doesn’t respect expertise and drives wrongheaded expenditure of resources in the service of special interests or superstition. Engineers can get involved in the decision making process in our society as well as educating and informing society. An example of how powerful this can be is the economic and strategic miracle of China where most of the top leadership have backgrounds in engineering. This contrasts with our current situation where short term special interests and financial sleight of hand have come to dominate (See Andy Grove’s take on we can change and regain our standing in the world).

What are the challenges of staying current and having a long career in engineering?

I think that being curious about things and also developing a comfort zone that means you’re uncomfortable with being comfortable. The biggest mistakes I’ve made involved neglecting one or the other of those two. For example, not paying enough attention to that noise the car was making to uncover the root cause or staying too long in an organization that was static have caused me all sorts of trouble. One aspect of curiosity is that I tend to scan a lot of information (the internet has be fabulous for this) and have developed an intuition for sorting out the good stuff from the chaff. I think intuition is an important part of being curious and being successful. Related to discomfort with the status quo is being willing to take risks. I’ve done a few things (actually more than a few), like my first startup, that were spectacular failures in some aspects but each was also an opportunity to learn and improve. Out of perfection nothing comes. It helps to keep the ego in check when it comes to risk taking.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” – Helen Keller

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