Inside Cowart’s Brain: Test and Evaluation of Unmanned Autonomous Systems of Systems

Kris Cowart By David Rosenbaum
January 7, 2011

U.S. Air Force Major Kris Cowart, a fellow in MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) programs class entering in 2010, is currently working with MIT’s Lean Advancement Initiative on his thesis research in order to determine how a decision support system designed for the test planning of unmanned autonomous systems of systems can add value to the Department of Defense test and evaluation enterprise.

Cowart was ready to join the SDM cohort and begin this challenging work in September 2009, but while vacationing with his family the prior July he woke up seeing double. He knew this was a bad sign, as a few months earlier he had been told that he had two aneurysms deep in his brain and he had put off what he was told would be risky surgery to see whether his symptoms (headaches, fatigue) would worsen.

Clearly, they had.

Cowart spent 18 hours on the operating table and was sedated for weeks afterward to give his brain time to heal. When he awoke, his short term memory was impacted and he had trouble remembering the names of friends and family. Today, when asked whether he has any lingering cognitive deficits, he answers, “I’m at MIT, aren’t I?”

That road to MIT and SDM began at Edwards Air Force Base where engineers like Cowart were teamed with pilots to test aerospace systems. By working closely together, they all learned to speak the same language, which enabled the engineers to understand the pilots’ needs. “The human factor is critical,” says Cowart, who has seen this user-centric message reinforced in his SDM classes. “You don’t want to inundate the pilot with too much information; you want to give him enough to allow him to do what he needs to do.”

Cowart, a career officer, views the training he’s receiving at SDM as “a unique mix of engineering discipline and business acumen.” He believes that this, along with his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Louisiana State University and MS in Aerospace Engineering earned from the Georgia Institute of Technology, will allow him to become “a key cog for others,” whether in the military or the private sector.

His thesis research is a case in point. His focus is on how a decision support system designed for the test planning of unmanned autonomous systems of systems can add value to the Department of Defense test and evaluation enterprise. Cowart says there are many challenges associated with systems of systems testing, and understanding the needs and requirements of the stakeholders is fundamental in order to be successful. One challenge that must be overcome is for multiple systems to work together despite the fact that they are unavoidably asynchronous, each with its own development schedule, budget, employees, and program managers. Synching up multiple systems (and multiple people and resources) efficiently and effectively requires a significant amount of coordination, a necessarily abstract and difficult process.

“Right now, as an officer, I help to develop and acquire the systems needed by the warfighter. With my background, experience, a B.S. and an M.S. in engineering, plus SDM, I think I’ll be able to make valuable contributions to the mission now and to any company once my career in the Air Force is over.”

Photo by L. Barry Hetherington