Making drones a part of everyday life

Megan Gent
February 28, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Andrew Weinert, a 2009 Penn State alumnus, said taking advantage of the many engagement opportunities within the College of Information Sciences and Technology helped prepare him for life after graduation — which includes his current role as a staff research associate in the Homeland Protection and Air Traffic Control Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where he focuses on enabling drones to be safely and efficiently integrated into the national airspace. His experience at Penn State — from being involved in student organizations to having positive networking outcomes at career fairs — has motivated him to give back as an alumnus by serving as a volunteer on the IST Alumni Society Board.

What drew you to Penn State and the College of IST as a student?

I really wanted to attend a research university where I would be able to pursue research in a variety of fields and at the undergraduate level. Specifically, I wanted to pursue a career in drones and data science, and Penn State was one of the few universities that offers opportunities in both. I also was a three-time state champion swimmer and wanted to compete in varsity athletics.

Which class, teacher or lesson made the biggest impact on you, and how?

I really enjoyed and benefited from classes taught by Col. Jake Graham, USMC (Ret). His emphasis on decision-making and analytic techniques have been very useful as an applied researcher. Lectures were enhanced by his depth of experience. Col. Graham later provided one of the recommendations for my Lincoln Laboratory graduate fellowship.

Talk a bit about your career path since graduation. How did the College of IST prepare you for your current position?

I met my current (and only employer since graduation) at the College of IST career fair. I was interviewed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory based on a student conference paper about integrating drones into the national airspace and started as an intern in the summer of 2009. I received an offer for a full-time position before I headed back to State College that fall. After graduating in December, I moved to Boston and started working in early January 2010. I would credit the research and student organization opportunities that I took advantage of at Penn State with helping me get this position.

I spent the new few years working on technologies to mitigate the risk of a drone hitting a manned aircraft and was exposed to many different roles and responsibilities. MIT Lincoln Laboratory then provided me with a fellowship to pursue a graduate degree. Although I never thought in high school that I would focus on mathematics, I graduated with a master's degree in electrical and computer engineering from Boston University in 2015, with my thesis focused on applied mathematics and information theory.

Upon finishing my master’s degree, I helped form a new research group at Lincoln Laboratory focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief while also continuing research with drones. For the next few years, I was able to participate in unique field opportunities, including a military exercise in the Philippines with 20+ nations to focus on improving humanitarian assistance and disaster response; a monthlong 3D mapping of the entire island of Puerto Rico from a twin-engine airplane to support the Hurricane Maria recovery; and drone flights across Oahu, Hawaii, to develop an imagery dataset intended to help build search and rescue drones.

Recently, I transitioned back to focus on aviation full time.

What is your current career, and what do you do on a daily basis?

I am a member of the technical research staff in the Homeland Protection and Air Traffic Control Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. I focus on enabling drones to be safely and efficiently integrated into the national airspace. My day is filled with everything from telecoms for standards bodies, to informing regulations, to conducting large scale simulations of what happens when aircraft get too close to each other.

Currently, one of my high priority efforts is standardizing in ASTM F38, the distance from which a small drone should operate away from a manned aircraft to not cause a hazard and the means by which a drone can comply. We’re expecting the standard to go to ballot and be published soon. My technical team provided the initial recommendation on what the distance should be, and it’s been exciting to carry it to the finish line. It also has been rewarding that I’m doing exactly what I sought out to do after high school — helping drones become part of everyday life.

How did the College of IST prepare you for your career?

The multidisciplinary focus of the College of IST prepared me for the many different roles I may need to fill as an applied researcher as well as the ability to interact with many different research fields.

Why do you choose to volunteer for the Alumni Society Board?

I wanted to represent the more technical-focused alumni on the board. Also, as a relatively new college, I wanted to help the college continue to adapt to a constantly evolving field.

Why would you encourage other alumni to reengage with the college in their alumni years?

The Alumni Association has played a significant role in my life. When I moved up to Boston after graduation, I didn’t really know anyone there. I became involved with the Boston chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association and participated in game watches and networking events with other Big Ten alumni groups. Over a decade later, I’m still friends and colleagues with people I met through the alumni events.

It also has been great to network with other Penn State alumni at large industry and academic conferences. For example, I recently presented at the AIAA SciTech Forum, the world’s largest event for aerospace research, development and technology. With thousands of attendees, it was well appreciated that Penn State hosted its own alumni event at the conference. It was encouraging to see so many of my former classmates there and that we’re making an impact on the industry.

What is your advice to current and future students in the college?

Take advantage of the many research opportunities, student organizations and resources that Penn State has to offer. These are great ways to learn about what you actually like and then can help focus your interests, in addition to helping you to gain experience to help you stand out from the crowd.

I ended up taking a bunch of classes in the College of Engineering, and I’m excited about the new data sciences degree program. Don’t be afraid of seeking out the classes that best match your interest and help you get to where you want to get.

Penn State World Campus was also a great resource, especially during the summer sessions. I stayed on campus for the summer for swim practice. The flexible schedule afforded by World Campus allowed me to get more out of summer and was a beneficial experience.

Were you involved in any organizations or extracurricular activities in the college or at Penn State? How did they help to enhance your college experience?

Over the course of my time at Penn State, I was a member of the varsity swim team, was an active member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) student chapter and played intramural soccer. Even a decade after graduation, many of my good friends, including the best man for my wedding, were members of these same organizations.

Is there any additional information you would like to share?

I met my wife, Stephanie, while at Penn State. She was a roommate of a fellow swimmer. My wife and I ran the Marine Corps Marathon together in 2017. I also have a FAA remote pilot certificate for drone operations and an FCC amateur radio license.

Last Updated February 28, 2020