Getting to know Wayfinder Senior Software Engineer, Jim Vaughan

“We’re really pushing the envelope with autonomous vehicles…the possibility and that element of uncertainty that comes with self-flying planes, makes the work that much more engaging.”

Why did you originally join the Wayfinder team?

It looked really promising, given my technical background in computer vision, robotics, 3D graphics and embedded systems. Autonomous flight and machine learning tie together my past experience, but in a cool and new way. It’s fascinating to work with autonomous vehicles, and flight in particular was something I had never done before. I was also exploring employment at self-driving car companies, which offer another interesting set of challenges from a technical point of view. But it’s much easier to put cameras on a car and drive it around than it is to try and do the same with an aircraft. There is no doubt that autonomous vehicles are the way of the future, Wayfinder is just the more intriguing challenge, and the team here is amazing.

Can you tell us a bit more about your professional background?

That’s certainly a long story. [Laughs] I’ve generally worked on the prototyping stages of products. I worked in a research lab for a long time. Product development is less interesting to me because a lot of that is going over stuff that’s already been done and doing it again, with incremental improvements. I like being involved with the prototyping part of a project. There’s a lot of interesting technology involved in designing self-flying planes, some of which I have experience in and some of which I don’t—but I’m keen to learn. This is a really good time in terms of the evolution of autonomous vehicles and the technology space as a whole. For example, with self-driving cars, while there’s a lot of interesting work there, that peak moment to go in, do really cool stuff, and be one of the innovators in that space has now passed. In terms of self-flying planes, I am happy to have joined much earlier on in the process.

So what you’re talking about is the market maturation of autonomous vehicles?

Right, but it’s not about the market; it’s about the technology. In self-driving cars, for example, there are a lot of jobs available, but the opportunities that I interviewed for were all for roles which were much more defined. At this point, the technology has matured enough that these companies have formed into groups and are looking at very specific roles. Self-flying planes are at a much earlier evolutionary stage so the roles aren’t as clearly defined, which appealed to me.

Are you saying that autonomous flight provides more of an opportunity to chart your own course?

Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. There’s not really much of a map. You don’t really know how it’s going to go. On the other hand, there are so many self-driving car companies out there right now, and they’re all just trying to catch up with each other by making whatever incremental advances that they can. The challenges in autonomous flight are being uncovered and explored as we speak.

What’s the most exciting challenge with self-flying planes that you’re working on right now?

Well, we’ve done a lot with simulation and getting our software together. Soon we’re going to transition to putting cameras and other sensors on the actual aircraft. It’s certainly much more of a challenge than putting such devices on a car, because you can just stick a camera on your car and drive it around. You can’t just put stuff on an aircraft. You have to have it certified. A certified mechanic has to install it. It’s an entirely different level of challenge.

But let me get back to your original question. Right now, I’m writing code that ties things together. I’m bringing together several different projects that were previously being run in isolation. It’s interesting to see them come together. Instead of lots of individual projects we are now creating one big system that allows them to talk to each other. And we’re getting ready to install it on an aircraft, which will be interesting to say the least. I’ve certainly never done anything like that before.

What about in terms of software that you’re working to develop right now?

We’re really pushing the envelope with autonomous vehicles because we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. It will be interesting to look back on this in ten years and see whether it had any impact or not, to see if maybe we should have gone down a different path. Ultimately, we’re still very early on in our journey toward autonomous flight. It’s not like we’re making a product and we’re sitting on a working prototype. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, that possibility and that element of uncertainty makes it that much more engaging.