From flying machines to walking robots, drone designer Pauline Pounds has one of the most enviable and creative jobs around. She travels the world, collaborating and creating technology that has a major impact.
Pauline studied a Bachelor of Engineering at the Australian National University (ANU), going on to complete a PhD in robotics in 2008. Pauline said she was drawn to this field from a young age.
“I wanted to be an engineer since I was five years old. I didn’t even know what an engineer was, but I wanted to be the person who makes machines, and the more sophisticated the better!”
Pauline is a Canberra local, and has a deep appreciation for life in the nation’s capital.
“I was born and raised in Canberra. I love the city! I’ve travelled extensively, but Canberra remains the place I love best.”
For Pauline, coming to university was about much more than academic opportunity.
“ANU wasn’t just an educational institution to me, it was a turning point in my personal development. For the first time in my life I felt accepted and valued. I started to feel good about myself and where I was going. I threw myself into my studies and could not get enough,” she said.
She chose the systems engineering degree at ANU for its interdisciplinary reputation.
“I adore engineering, and the ANU systems engineering degree covered so many things. Mechanical, electrical, dynamics, statics, structures, software design, semiconductor physics, sustainable energy systems, materials science, robotics, computer vision, logistics… even law and economics.
“I felt like I was giving myself a true challenge and that I would learn among the best and brightest.”
Pauline graduated with first-class honours then continued her study at ANU, with a PhD under the supervision of College of Engineering and Computer Science academic Professor Robert Mahony.
She developed a high tech ‘quadrotor’, a helicopter that is lifted and propelled by a set of four rotors. Her PhD project was, and in many ways still is, the most advanced quadrotor ever seen.
After finishing her PhD, Pauline briefly worked in the private sector, but soon missed the excitement of building robots and academia.
She landed a position at Yale University, working with a team in the field of Aerial Manipulation who use flying robots to grasp and retrieve objects.
“We were the first group to manipulate unstructured objects using a hovering robot outdoors. From this, all the Amazon and Google delivery drones can trace their lineage,” she said.
Pauline now works at the University of Queensland, addressing some of the most interesting challenges for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), such as improving their endurance, wind-gust rejection, and cost safety.
Pauline also helped co-found ‘Olaeris’, a UAV start-up based in North Carolina. The aircraft they constructed was so advanced in almost every area of its construction, many people said it couldn’t be done.
“There is nothing as supreme as seeing something that is almost science fiction, work and exceed your expectations,” she said.
In late 2015, Pauline also had a personal ‘ah ha! moment’, coming out as transgender. She has since reflected on how positive the experience has been as a transgender woman in engineering.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have the support of my spouse, family, and professional colleagues to transition smoothly. I couldn’t be happier!”
Pauline’s passion for engineering doesn’t stop when the work day is over.
“Engineering is my one true passion. Outside of the workplace, my hobbies consist of making electronic toys and jewellery. It’s sometimes hard to tell where one starts and the other stops!” she said.
Pauline’s love for the engineering discipline shows how an appetite to change the world and a knack for creativity can be combined with technical problem solving.
Pauline has a few words of advice for others considering studying or pursuing a career in engineering:
“Don’t do engineering because you think it’s a safe job or because you’re good at maths and science. Do engineering because you think building the rocket is more fun than being an astronaut. Do engineering because you like the idea of being paid to solve technical problems to make the world better".