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The Next Big Dream

December 5, 2016

During assembly on Monday, December 5, director of the Boeing Research & Technology-Missouri research center helped launch National Computer Science Education Week. Nancy Pendleton spoke to students about the thrill of developing new ideas and applications, the importance of the compatibility of hardware and software, and the challenge of protecting and mining data.

Pendleton said she grew up in north St. Louis watching massive airplanes fly over her home. She wondered how they stayed up. She wondered then — and now — what would be the next big idea. She has been with Boeing for nearly 30 years, working on everything from missile systems to aircraft design. It is a place of continuous learning and discovery, she said.

Pendleton displayed several unmanned systems on the stage. She said the development of these systems — air vehicles, ground-based vehicles and under-sea vehicles — pose a particularly interesting challenge. Deleting the human brain from the operation of hardware requires creating a brain in the software, i.e., building code that allows the machine to make decisions in whatever environment it finds itself in. She explained, for instance, if a tornado were to hit a metropolitan area and rupture gas lines, it would be desirable, and safer, to send "smart" unmanned vehicles to work together to secure gas valves rather than sending in, and risking, human beings.

During a brief Q & A, faculty and students asked about Boeing's competitors (she mentioned several companies with which Boeing competes and partners, as well as other industries and research universities); the balance between Boeing's military and commercial work (she said it's about 40:60); the role of failure in innovation (she said she has learned as much from failure as she has from success); and what students should do in college and before to prepare for a career in technology and innovation (she recommended immersion in practical application programs/projects and networking).