Dan & Josh: Friendly Competition

Two Leading Automation Minds on Race Car Driving and Robotics

If there’s one thing Dan Allford, president of ARC Specialties, and Josh Sooknanan, an aerospace engineer with NASA, can agree on, it’s a need for speed.

Both friends enjoy the thrill of mountain bike racing and the even bigger thrill of race car driving. The first race car Sooknanan competed with was a car Allford loaned to him. Despite the fact that Sooknanan blew that car up during his second race, they’ve continued to race together, with Allford helping instruct Sooknanan in the art of race car driving.

How Fast Cars and Automation Bring Friendly Competition

Another interest – and perhaps friendly competition – these two share is high-level robotics. Having so many interests in common allows Sooknanan and Allford to keep each other on their toes, both on the race track and in their work.

One such example is their ongoing debate regarding the differences between autonomous and teleoperated robots. Allford believes that a machine should run entirely on its own, without human instruction, whereas Sooknanan believes a robot can be autonomous with some level of human instruction, which he refers to as supervised autonomy.

Having a level of supervised autonomy is key in the space industry, according to Sooknanan, so that robots can do their jobs safely.

“You know, with some level of oversight, [we can] make sure we’re not going to take one of these massive manipulators on the outside of a space station and poke a hole in it or something crazy like that,” Sooknanan said.

Allford on the other hand is looking for autonomy where the robot will do the same thing over and over, but also wants it to have sensor systems that give it sight and touch sensors that encourage it to adapt. According to Allford, adding sensor systems is a key element of autonomy.

“It can not only repeat a repetitive task – it can adapt to its environment. It can adapt to its parts, and then do something that it wasn’t originally programmed to do,” Sooknanan said.

A Bond Built for the Long Haul

A little friendly competition is something Sooknanan and Allford enjoy, and they don’t mind disagreeing on robotics.

“I like to pick on Josh, largely to stimulate conversation, because we’re solving similar problems in very different ways. So, by provoking him, I can get him to talk a little bit more,” Allford said.

Robotics aside, the really big question is clear – who is the better race car driver?

“What I like to remind Josh of is that a good instructor is defined by the fact that their student exceeds their skill,” Allford said.

“I concur,” Sooknanan said with a laugh.

Enjoy the Podcast: The Difference Between Robots on Earth and Robots Outer Space