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Autonomy Answers: Meet Louis Nastro

Autonomy Answers - Louis Nastro

This ongoing interview series features professionals within and outside of Trimble to share their insights, experiences and opinions about autonomy and its range of applications across a variety of industries.

Meet Louis Nastro, Director On-Road Strategy and Marketing, Trimble Autonomy

Louis Nastro is the Director, Strategy and Marketing for the On-Road Autonomy Division. He has been with Applanix and subsequently Trimble for a total of 17 years. Louis joined Applanix in 2005 as Director for Land Products, where he was involved in the formation of Applanix’s localization solutions for autonomous vehicles. 

Questions for Trimble Autonomy Leaders:

How do you foresee the impact of autonomous solutions / technologies on consumer’s lives? 

Autonomous vehicle technology will have a deep impact on consumer’s lives. It will present consumers the opportunity to redefine how they view transportation. Take for example car ownership. When autonomous vehicles are deployed in significant numbers, mobility will be on demand.  Going to a destination can be done by hailing an autonomous taxi anytime and perhaps foregoing vehicle ownership altogether. It will also empower those who cannot drive themselves.

How we order and take delivery of our purchases also will change. The age of autonomous trucking is drawing closer. With a steady stream of vehicles not requiring humans to take rest stops or face the risk of falling asleep at the wheel, a faster, safer and more reliable transportation of goods will be able to reach their destination. We will be able to purchase goods globally and have them shipped via intermodal autonomous transportation vehicles to regional hubs and via last mile delivery vehicles to our homes.

In your opinion, where does an automated workflow in construction and/or agriculture make the biggest difference in the machine’s functionality and/or in the end user’s workflow?

The biggest impact is the utilization of sensor data on board the vehicle to provide users in a construction or agriculture environment with actionable information. With a perception system (LIDAR, camera, radar, thermal, ultrasonic) it provides the real time critical functionality of knowing what is around the vehicle so that it can complete an assigned task and adapt if conditions change. That sensor data provides a wealth of information about the farm or construction job site which can be interpreted and used for near real time applications. For example, a job site plan is loaded onto an autonomous dozer and using the sensors on board the vehicle, we can transmit that data to the command and control layer of software to understand deviations in as-built versus the plan. Adjustments can be made or the data can be used as a quality control measure.

Why did you choose engineering?

I have always enjoyed taking things apart, understanding how they work and modifying them to do something different. Engineering gave me the “toolset” to do that at a much deeper level on a variety of different projects and clients throughout my career. The biggest challenge has been working with autonomous vehicles in all environments. Using data in ways never envisioned before to transform how a user does a particular job or how we solve a problem for them is why I have a passion for this industry.

What’s been your greatest professional accomplishment?  What work are you most proud of?

I would have to say taking a core GNSS/inertial product (our POS LV technology) and working with the DARPA Grand Challenge Teams to use it in a way which it was never designed for. The Grand Challenges, while old news now, was the initial proving ground for all the revolutionary advances in autonomous vehicle technology we see today.  It was a true honor being there from the start, working alongside and learning from the best and brightest minds in the world. The POS LV was designed primarily for mapping, which is a post-processed application. We adapted it over the years more for real-time applications and optimizing its performance. This allowed us to help the Teams we worked with achieve victory in the competition. Those initial steps allowed us to build a successful business from virtually nothing over the last 15 years, leading us to win business from a range of OEMs across the mining, construction, agriculture and automotive industries. Leading a team of highly skilled professionals to accomplish this has brought me perhaps the greatest satisfaction.

Can you share a ‘breakthrough’ or ‘aha’ moment in your own journey of implementation of autonomous capabilities?

Early in our work with a multinational equipment manufacturer, we were looking at how we add more value to our core positioning and orientation product offering. Their autonomous mining trucks (AMTs) are in operation 24x7. When we were looking at the data recorded from these vehicles, we realized that the answer to more value was staring us in the face.  Trimble Applanix is the world leader in GNSS inertial integration and post-processed mapping applications requiring QA/QC tools and precision positioning and orientation.  We had all the software to make precision maps from the sensor data and provide them with a level of precision that could eliminate the need for a surveyor to go into a dangerous environment to take measurements. We optimized the POS LV for real time performance and taking that same data from the LIDAR we could provide the client the post processed version to derive pass-to pass data analysis should they want to use it.  We had to look at the AMT not only as an autonomous vehicle, but as a mobile mapping system. This approach is now being used for both on and off-road applications. It was also a learning experience for me that breakthroughs are sometimes right in front of us and we just have to have the right perspective to see it.

What would you tell someone who’s eager to work on autonomous solutions? What do they need to know to do this work?

It helps to have a formal background in the specific discipline you are most interested in.  For example mechatronics, system controls, localization, perception etc. Some of us went into aerospace engineering and then applied that background to specific vehicle functions such as precision location, map generation, sensor fusion / integration etc. No matter the path you take, this industry requires so many skilled individuals in so many disciplines that you need to find what is most interesting to you and not only get the experience academically, but go apply it in the field. I was very fortunate to do my field work at the formative stages of this industry and learn from the ground up from very talented people who were patient and explained things when I did not fully understand them. My background got me to speak the language and understand complex technical systems, but it was the field work that completed the picture for me.

Is there a favorite toy/game from your childhood that shaped your career path?

Hands down it was LEGO. Drove my parents crazy asking for add-on LEGO sets of thousands of pieces. When they came to check to see what I was doing with it, they saw an entire LEGO aircraft being assembled, disassembled and reassembled in another configuration.  It saved them I guess on babysitting costs as I could do that for hours on end.

In your opinion, what’s the closest thing to real magic?

I think Elon Musk said something to the effect of engineering is the closest thing to real magic and I would have to agree with that. Look at what an autonomous vehicle does for example, and that’s real magic. Take into consideration how many subsystems and hundreds of thousands of lines of code have to work in real time to make an inanimate object behave in a safe and reliable way to accomplish a specific task.