This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2010.
Rick Armstrong is snuggled up with a laptop in the cluttered space that was once the backseat of a six-passenger Cessna 206. Twenty-five hundred meters below, sun-splashed Portland, Ore., slowly dissolves into the Tolkienesque foothills of Mount Hood. It’s some beautiful scenery. But right now, Armstrong’s eyes are fixed on his computer, which monitors the images that are streaming in from a camera mounted under the belly of the little plane.
Luckily, he doesn’t need to worry about flying. His pilot, an ex–U.S. National Guardsman, expertly guides the plane back and forth in a series of closely spaced lines so as to get full coverage of the territory below—not unlike the zigzagging you might do when mowing a lawn, but on a grander scale. By the end of the day, Armstrong’s laptop will have mapped about 600 square kilometers of land.
After the plane touches down, Armstrong will return his precious cargo—a 160-gigabyte solid-state drive filled with about 7000 high-resolution images of the Oregon landscape—to Urban Robotics, an aerial imaging company in Portland. There, engineers will transform the collected images into 3-D representations of the land that are downright stunning. Using sensor systems and parallel-processing software that it developed itself, the company creates what are known as orthorectified maps, which can be used to measure true distances.
The upshot is that Armstrong, flying in a properly outfitted plane, can in a single day create the kind of detailed elevation and ground maps that used to require weeks or months of processing. Urban Robotics’ customers—which include defense contractors, disaster planners, and power companies—need up-to-date, extremely detailed maps.
Urban Robotics hasn’t suffered from the recession, but its headquarters aren’t housed in sleek steel and glass. Its offices are on the second floor of a charmingly creaky building that seems straight out of “Deadwood”—complete with exposed brick, huge windows, and ancient wood floors that groan under countless layers of varnish.
A glossy aerial photo of the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Pennsylvania takes up an entire wall. With the outrageous level of detail, you can almost tell the make of the cars parked in a lot near one of the cooling towers. Breathtaking aerial views of national monuments entice potential clients. Hidden away are the maps commissioned by the U.S. military.
Creating accurate, nicely blended 3-D maps from several terabytes’ worth of 2-D images, automatically and on short deadlines, is an enormously complex task. Doing it right and doing it fast (the company’s specialty) involves a special sauce of image processing, mathematics, numerical computing, information theory, and parallel computing. Urban Robotics—founded in 2003 by two former Intel employees and an ex–U.S. Defense Department scientist—makes its maps using wickedly complicated signal processing and complex camera systems. That’s where Armstrong, a self-described “inveterate geek,” comes in: He designs and works on the sensor systems. But he looks as though he should be disassembling motorcycles on a reality show; his goatee and untucked shirt match a similarly untucked attitude.
“Everybody I work with took the TV apart as a kid,” Armstrong says, walking into a messy office with floor-to-ceiling windows and filled with electronics gear.
He may have taken the TV apart as a kid, but his path to engineering was by no means traditional. He grew up in Los Angeles. His father, a former pilot, often took him to the airport to watch planes take off and land. “He had a little aviation radio,” Armstrong remembers, “and he’d turn it on and explain to me what was happening.”
But not long after those trips to the airport, his father left. Keeping Armstrong on the right path fell to his aunt and his uncle, a barrel-chested Scotsman with a handlebar mustache, an Afro, and an excellent collection of vinyl. “At 14, I decided there was no point in going to school anymore,” Armstrong says. “I told my aunt I’d get around to it at some point. She told me, ‘No, you’ll get around to it now.’” Dragging him to school by the ear, as he describes it, worked until he was 17, which is when music began to seem a lot more interesting than what he was learning in class.
He left school, started his own metal band, and became chief sound engineer at the Ice House, a former rock club in nearby Pasadena. But even that job became boring for Armstrong, who likes to work out some of his restless energy solving mathematical puzzles, preferably by putting them in matrix form. (He loves linear algebra so much that he watches an MIT professor’s online tutorials in his spare time.) When he turned 25, he received a GED certificate and started chipping away at an electrical engineering degree at a local college. When money ran out, he hopped an Alaska-bound Greyhound bus and spent the summer on a salmon fishing boat. He did the same the following year.
On his second trip, he met his girlfriend, an artist. “We spent about 20 hours on that bus together,” Armstrong says with a smile. They’re still together after 15 years. Although they have moved around quite a bit, they have no plans to leave Portland, a city that Armstrong likes because it affords its residents the rare luxury of not having to drive. And, he says, the summers are outrageously green and beautiful. “But you know, you really have to be into caffeine and alcohol to survive the rest of the year.”
Armstrong’s very first flight, in 2004, took him over the Grand Canyon. Next he went to Las Vegas. And it just kept getting better. Most recently, he buzzed Horseshoe Bay, near Vancouver in British Columbia, by helicopter, where he made eye contact with a bald eagle swooping around the chopper while he was parked on the side of a mountain. “My job is half flying and half math,” he says. He loves it. “A lot of times in IT programming, you write some software and you get user feedback. But it’s really nice to eat your own lunch—you know, see your own code working.”
Armstrong and his pilot fly at 2500 meters, because that altitude provides the best compromise between good coverage and good resolution. Also, above 2500 meters looms the danger of hypoxia, a dangerous condition that occurs when the body is deprived of adequate oxygen.
In October, Armstrong and several other Urban Robotics field engineers got the chance to experience what hypoxia is like during training they received at Fairchild Air Force Base, outside of Spokane, Wash. The engineers climbed into a hypobaric chamber, inside which the pressure was abruptly lowered to simulate sudden decompression at 20 000 feet (about 6000 meters). Then they removed their masks for several minutes for some cognitive tests. “It was like an episode of ‘Jackass,’” Armstrong says.
Armstrong says they can have his job when they pry it out of his cold, dead hands. “I’m nominally a software engineer, but I also get to dabble in other engineering disciplines,” he says. “And I get to do it while riding around in all manner of flying machines!”
This article originally appeared in print as “Rick Armstrong: Flying Mathematician.”
To Probe Further
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