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John Junkins: Space Junkie

By Tim Schnettler

In the realm of aerospace engineering, the name John Junkins is one of notoriety. From the rank of distinguished professor and regents professor at Texas A&M University to being a member of the National Academy of Engineering, Junkins’ reputation precedes him.

The kicker is that Junkins, who also holds the Royce E. Wisenbaker Chair in Engineering, almost didn’t end up in academics. Like many young men, Junkins had visions of being a standout on the football field. Growing up in the football-crazy state of Georgia helped fuel his passion for success on the gridiron.

"I was not a great high school student, but I knew I had potential," Junkins says of his early years. "Also, in hindsight, I was an upper -mediocre athlete who was seriously overachieving already and likely would not have made it at the next level.

"However, in the social culture I grew up in, success in football was more important than being an exceptional student. I was not mature enough until my late teens to set myself on a proper course, and since I was destined to be the first Junkins male to finish college, I did not have great academic mentoring. I wasn’t taking the college-prep courses, especially to pursue a technical field."

During his senior year of high school, Junkins says he was planning to play football, having been recruited by Clemson and Georgia Tech. But that same year, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech about how the United States was going to land a man on the moon. Kennedy’s much-celebrated words caused Junkins to change his thinking.

Georgia Tech did not offer a scholarship, but Junkins was considering walking on there and trying to time-share studying engineering with football.

"That speech really caught my attention," Junkins says. "I was tempted, the moment I heard Kennedy chart the Apollo course, to say, ‘To heck with football’ because I feel like I have the potential to play a role in this grand challenge."

Tempted, but not completely convinced, Junkins still had his sights set on college football. Although the words of President Kennedy weren’t quite enough to sway him to make the final decision, the actions of his high school coach Crosslyn Clegg were.

Space Junkie: Graduate students at work on H.O.M.E.R.

"I had a great man as my coach in high school who knew I shouldn’t be playing college football, but he didn’t just tell me to forget it," Junkins says.

Instead, Clegg showed Junkins what he was in for if he decided to continue playing football on the collegiate level.

"He knew Coach Moore at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga," Junkins says. "[Clegg] said, ‘Why don’t we go up there and observe spring practice; it will let you see what it is all about.’

"We went up there and I found out there were many guys that outweighed me by 40 pounds, who were not only stronger and faster than me, but playing football just consumed their life. It was intimidating, and the idea of time-sharing serious academics seemed farfetched, especially since this was Division II level and I wanted to play at the Division I level."

Driving home with Clegg, Junkins realized that football wasn’t the way he needed to go, and he informed Clegg of his decision.

"He said, ‘John, I have no idea what God’s plan is for you, but I know it has nothing to do with your body; it has everything to do with your mind,’" Junkins says. "And that was the turning point. Coach Clegg’s insightful mentoring made a deep impression on me, and it helped me throughout my career to become a more effective and benevolent mentor — helping students and younger colleagues to gain the first hand experience and insight to make their own decisions. It also helped me appreciate that a person’s current state is not nearly as important as helping them get on the right path."

"I very quickly saw that I enjoyed analysis and, especially, formulating mathematical models for physical systems at a conceptual level. I began to excel and gain momentum. I knew I had found my calling."

With a new direction set, Junkins began to focus on academics. At the behest of his mother, who felt he needed to first grow up and learn how to study, Junkins attended Berry College, a four-year liberal arts college in Rome, Georgia, for his freshman year.

"I did that, and it turned out to be very smart. I learned how to study and made up for my lack of preparation," Junkins says. "Then I transferred to Auburn University at the beginning of my sophomore year. I very quickly saw that I enjoyed analysis and, especially, formulating mathematical models for physical systems at a conceptual level. I began to excel and gain momentum. I knew I had found my calling."

His labor of love paid off when Junkins earned his bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Auburn. He followed that with a master's and a Ph.D. in engineering, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. He time-shared his UCLA graduate study with full-time work as an engineer at McDonnell Douglas, where his work supported many launches of satellites aboard the Delta booster. Upon graduating from UCLA, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Virginia in 1970. He moved to Virginia Tech in 1978 and eventually came to Texas A&M in 1985 as the first endowed chair holder in the College of Engineering.

Adding to his accomplishments

With a list of accomplishments such as those of Junkins, the temptation to sit back and enjoy "embroidery on concepts developed during the earlier decades of my career" could be great. Junkins, however, has never been satisfied to engage in embroidery. At a time in his career, when most start looking toward retirement, Junkins picked up a new "hobby" — inventing.

"In addition to teaching and academic research, I started doing inventions around age 50," Junkins says. "Elouise, my wife, said, 'Some men in midlife lose their bearings and get off into dangerous territory where convertibles and younger women live. But not John Junkins: He got into electro-optics, and obviously, he made a very healthy choice!'"

Junkins got his first idea for an invention during a 1992 flight to Monterey, Calif., to begin a faculty development leave at the Naval Postgraduate School. While on the flight he was anxious to try out his latest purchase, an early handheld computer, which Junkins says was "large and clunky" and used a stylus for handwritten input. After using it for a while, Junkins became frustrated with the poor functionality and felt that he had wasted his money on the purchase.

"One of the great challenges in front of the aerospace community is orbital debris. We have 20,000 objects that we need to remove from Earth’s orbit. These things are like bullets up there and are dangerous to humans and expensive machines."

"I came to the quick conclusion that this device with handwritten input was a good idea, but the hardware was terrible and the software was worse," Junkins says. "I put it back in the box with smoke coming out of my ears because I was upset that I had spent $400 on it."

So Junkins began trying to come up with a better concept for handwritten computer input, targeting the classroom of the future, and eventually patented a laser-scanning digitizing whiteboard. He recognized that laser tracking of a handheld stylus was just "a simplified, localized version of space navigation, analogous to tracking a satellite." His invention led to a startup company and a successful prototype. However, others soon invented less expensive means of digitizing and the company eventually failed. Although this first invention did not make him rich, it did help usher in digital whiteboard technologies and pique his interest in being an inventor.

"While I did not make any money, I was hooked in the sense that I enjoyed the invention process because it used a different part of my brain than doing traditional academic engineering science research," Junkins says.

Junkins admits that he "accidentally stumbled" into being an inventor. He also admits to "having mediocre at best" success as an inventor, as measured by commercialization. The key for him as a professor, however, is "his newfound way to integrate teaching, academic research and invention in the development of people." He says his recent students are far better educated, and especially, more creative as a result. His Land, Air and Space Robotics (LASR) laboratory is a wonderful and exciting environment for educating engineers and scientists of the future. Also, he is now working on an important new invention, a three-dimensional camera known as HD3D. He is especially excited because this invention is moving closer to becoming a reality.

His previous inventions have also led to several commercial products, including navigation sensors for autonomous aerial refueling of aircraft as well as for spacecraft navigation based on star pattern recognition.

Artificial vision

HD3D is a new type of camera that will take an image of an object and precisely measure its three-dimensional geometry for each frame of a "3-D" video. Junkins points out that the HD3D laser sensor can image at close range as well as, remarkably, up to distances many tens of miles in space. At sea level, local atmospheric conditions and eye safety dictate the practical range as several football fields from the camera to the imaged object.

"HD3D ladar is almost like an optical radar," Junkins says. "The fact that this sensor can work over long distances, with appropriate laser power, and simultaneously capture geometry and texture gives it some unique features."

Junkins' invention would have applications in aerospace engineering and robotics by providing artificial 3-D vision. Such technology would be helpful not only in routine maneuvers of one satellite near another but also for clearing "space junk," the thousands of objects that float dangerously in Earth orbit.

"One of the great challenges in front of the aerospace community is orbital debris," Junkins says. "We have 20,000 objects that we need to remove from Earth's orbit. Some are just derelict satellites, but most are fragments from several satellite collisions. Every collision leaves debris that makes subsequent collisions more likely. These things are like bullets up there and are dangerous to humans and expensive machines.

"If we want to have the equivalent of a butterfly net to grab hold of these things and capture them and drag them down and release them to burn up in the atmosphere, we have to track them and image them in three dimensions to see where they are, and what these poorly known objects look like."

Enter HD3D

Laser ranging has existed for a long time. Golfers have used it to measure the distance from their ball to the flag on the green. Junkins' invention, however, takes laser ranging a giant step further. His device allows imaging an entire scene rather than just one point and captures 3-D geometric details by using a small device that functions at the same speed as a video camera.

"It is an advanced laser-sensing technology that very quickly sweeps a pulsed laser beam over the field you want to image," Junkins says. "Making 12 million measurements per second, it represents a two-order-of-magnitude speedup and with greatly increased precision."

Once operational, the camera will also help bring the "next generation" technology to Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM), which has been around for more than a decade. SLAM uses sensors on robots or autonomous vehicles to build a map and navigate in an unknown environment, such as a mine.

Junkins has an industrial partner, SPEC, in Austin that is building the HD3D sensor; they expect to have the device operational in the coming months. Junkins says that without SPEC, HD3D would probably have remained a "science project" in the LASR lab, but "these guys are at the cutting edge in laser sensing and have essentially fused our ideas with work they were already doing" in order to accelerate development of the first prototype. SPEC is licensing the intellectual property to build HD3D that Junkins created with his recent Ph.D. graduate Manoranjan Majji.

"Someday, someone will take their next-generation HD3D video camera to Florence and image Michelangelo's David," Junkins says. "They will then take home a 3-D video of this priceless object and with friendly software that came with their HD3D camera, they can rotate it, zoom it, fly all around it, and see it in an infinity of ways with much more three-dimensional detail than the unaided human eye can see.

"They will be able to see the near-microscopic chisel scars Michelangelo made if desired. Such high-definition three-dimensional capture technologies are coming in a few years and will significantly change the world. So let your imagination go, and you can anticipate a large number of ways such technologies will accelerate progress on many fronts as well as provide new means of communication, human interaction and, undoubtedly, entertainment."

Dr. John L. Junkins
Dr. John L. Junkins
Distinguished Professor Regents Professor Royce E. Wisenbaker Chair
Aerospace Engineering