Q & A

As era of drones takes off, she’s at the controls

“In one year, we will be flying a huge helicopter that can carry people, [and is commanded] with an iPhone.” says Missy Cummings, who is on leave from MIT and working on a medical evacuation helicopter for the military.

David Sella

“In one year, we will be flying a huge helicopter that can carry people, [and is commanded] with an iPhone.” says Missy Cummings, who is on leave from MIT and working on a medical evacuation helicopter for the military.

Missy Cummings landed
F/A-18 fighter jets on aircraft carriers when she was a Navy pilot. Now she studies unman-ned aerial vehicles — commonly known as drones — as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cummings is featured in Wednesday’s episode of NOVA, “Rise of the Drones,” at 9 p.m. on WGBH.

Q. What exactly is an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV?


A. It’s a plane that has the ability to take off, execute commands that are given at a high level by a remote supervisor, and then land on its own.

Q. A lot of people find the idea of a pilotless aircraft kind of creepy.

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A. I think that’s only natural when faced with new technology. When people were faced with horseless carriages, they weren’t thrilled at first because it’s the unknown. There’s reason to be concerned.

Q. What should we be worried about?

A. We should be having these conversations: What is the right way to use these, particularly on the domestic front? What’s
legal? How do we guarantee flight safety?


Q. Do we need to be concerned about being spied on?

A. I think people are going
overboard with their privacy concerns. Little UAVs can’t stay aloft very long. They can’t deal with wind very well. You’ve got a lot more [to be concerned about from] your neighbor who’s got a zoom lens on a
high-powered digital camera than people with UAVs coming in and spying on you.

Q. You’re on leave from MIT, working on a medical evacuation helicopter for the military.

A. In one year, we will be flying a huge helicopter that can carry people, [and is commanded] with an iPhone.

Q. Do you see a payoff for this technology beyond the military?

A. One of the side developments is of course humanitarian aid and disaster relief. You could imagine where there’s a hurricane situation, like Haiti — maybe it’s too difficult to get in a piloted aircraft, but you can send an unmanned aircraft in to drop off life-saving supplies.

Q. Will we soon be riding UAVs to work?

A. About 50 years ago there was this fantasy that everyone would have a flying car. That dream is closer to reality than we think, we just need to give up the flying part. We’re all bad drivers so we would be even worse pilots. We could have an airplane in every driveway, as long as someone else was doing the flying — i.e., automation. Once we get to where everyone has a robotic car, we’ll all be a lot safer.

Q. As a former Navy flier, does it bother you to take the pilot out of the cockpit?

A. When I was in the Navy flying fighter jets [in the mid-1990s], I learned that aircraft can land themselves better on aircraft carriers than I could. It was a little humiliating. It made me sit back and take a look at where I was going with my career.

Q. Do you see as much sexism in academia as you did when you were one of the first female pilots in the Navy?

A. There’s always discussion, particularly at MIT, that engineering is women-unfriendly, and that may be true. But from my personal perspective, it is so far below what I was used to in the Navy where no one would talk to you, that it’s below my radar. I think it helps having been a fighter pilot. That gives you some street cred.

Q. Does that street cred help with students, too?

A. Not every professor gets to tell you, “There I was at 25,000 feet in an inverted dive, out of control . . . ”

Q. You talk a lot about the ethics of using UAVs to protect American lives while simultaneously using them to try to kill enemies of America.

A. This technology becomes a moral buffer to our decision-making. This technology is great, but there are some hidden downsides. I work in [Washington,] D.C. right now. Every day, I interact with people who give a lot of lip service to robots and autonomous technology, but don’t really understand what that means, what the limitations are, and where we should be putting our research dollars.

Q. You work at the interface of humans and robots, but is the real goal to make the people unnecessary?

A. I’m not trying to take automation and replace humans. My research is how to develop collaborative systems so that automation is enabling people to do their jobs better.

Interview was edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karen
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