Staff Spotlight: Cary Champlin

My electrical engineering career started at Motorola Government Electronics and Space Group in Scottsdale, Arizona. My first assignment was in the Radar group, where I was the young kid working among senior engineers. There were lots of opportunities to design, integrate systems, and conduct flight tests for various side-looking airborne radars (SLAR).

Q: What is your background and more specifically, what accomplishments have led you to where you are now?

A: By the time I graduated high school, I had worked part-time a couple of years in a TV repair shop. I wanted to open my own shop. My father, an engineering college professor, persuaded me that I could still do that, but I also needed to graduate from college. As I look back, I realize that this was a great turning point in my life. During college, I had two part-time jobs while majoring in electrical engineering: repairing video games (Pong, Space Invaders) and as a TV studio technician.

My electrical engineering career started at Motorola Government Electronics and Space Group in Scottsdale, Arizona. My first assignment was in the Radar group, where I was the young kid working among senior engineers. There were lots of opportunities to design, integrate systems, and conduct flight tests for various side-looking airborne radars (SLAR). By the end of five years, I had learned much about Electronic Counter-Counter Measures (ECCM), multi-channel adaptive nulling circuits, 10 GHz frequency synthesizers, and doppler processors.

My last assignment at Motorola was as lead engineer for the team that designed, built, and managed a world-class integration and test facility that produced 82 Iridium satellites in 34 months. Iridium is a constellation of 66 satellites in polar low-earth orbits (LEO) providing direct links to 7 watt handsets using GSM-based protocols. Launched in the mid-90s, nearly 20 years later, almost all of them are still operational.

Irridium Satellite

Afterward, I consulted for six years in the Phoenix area, doing root cause investigations, radio frequency test development, and teaching. On a whim, I applied to Amazon as an algorithm optimization engineer. To my surprise, they made me an offer I couldn't refuse and Seattle became our new hometown!

I worked at Amazon as an algorithm math optimization engineer for two years and deployed two major projects: the first project used state estimation algorithms to verify package contents based on total package weight, and the second project optimized box sizes across Amazon to minimize cost.

Then, I found out about Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos' super-secret space company), where I worked on prototype sub-orbital crew capsules for seven years.

Q:  What do you bring to IV Lab?

A: I have a strong background in electronics, software, and mathematics, and my areas of expertise include electronics, algorithms, and software development. I am a lifelong learner and understand that learning from failures is critical to developing areas of expertise. One of my favorite jokes: “What is the difference between school and real life? In school, you learn the lesson before the test.

Q: Of the projects you have worked on in your career, which one is your favorite?

A: In my first month at Amazon, I was tasked with reviewing the previous work on trying to reduce shipment mistakes (fulfilled orders with missing, extra, or wrong items in the shipment box) using the total weight of the shipment (items plus the shipping box) as an indicator of a problem. The work over the previous year had tried to cast the problem as a statistical process control (SPC) problem without success because of the large range of available shipping box sizes and their weights.

The more I reviewed the previous work, something just wasn't right. At the end of a particularly long week, I was taking the bus on my commute home on Friday and was sitting near the back in my own world thinking about this problem. Then it clicked - the proverbial 'eureka' moment. I jumped up and exclaimed to the surprise of everyone on the bus "Of course! It isn't a statistical process control problem, it's an adaptive stochastic state estimation problem. Need to add barcodes to the corrugate boxes!" I spent the weekend writing up the tech memo with the Kalman state estimator math, proposed software changes, and the need to ID the boxes with barcodes.

Amazon moves quickly. In less than two weeks, new corrugated shipping boxes with barcodes were being received and software was updated and tested. Over the next seven weeks, these algorithms learned the weights of over 1.8 million products autonomously. During its first year of operation, these algorithms tracked item weights in an evolving inventory and verified the contents in over 64 million shipped packages. The performance was even good enough to detect a DVD plastic case with a missing DVD disc.

Check out the next shipping package/box you receive from Amazon. Barcodes are still on the corrugate box along with an ID (such as 1B3, C4).

Q: Who is your favorite scientist, engineer, inventor?

A: The scientists and engineers that conceived, designed, built, tested, and deployed Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft. A Grand Tour for an interplanetary satellite was proposed in the 1960's using gravity assist and alignment of the planets.

Voyager 1 launched in September 1977 and has been in operation for 36 years.  It is the furthest man-made object from earth, and as of 2013, signals from Voyager 1 take over 17 hours to reach Earth.

Voyager 2 launched in August 1977, two weeks earlier than Voyager 1. In June 1978 (less than a year into its mission), the primary radio receiver failed, and it has run on the backup unit ever since (35+ years).

NASA photograph of one of the two identical Voyager space probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 launched in 1977.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I am reading a well-written fictional novel by IV Lab coworker Matt Rosen’s father, Leonard Rosen, titled ‘All Cry Chaos.

A brief summary: The main character is Henri Poincaré, the great grandson of the famous mathematician of the same name. The action thriller begins when fractal mathematician James Fenster is assassinated on the eve of a long-scheduled speech at a World Trade Organization meeting. Henri Poincaré is a veteran Interpol investigator who pursues a list of suspects as he pieces together the clues. His family is at risk from the threats from an imprisoned war criminal. There are fanatical groups. There are more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie detective mystery.

Leonard Rosen has interwoven philosophy, fractal mathematics, rocket fuel, war criminals, world economy, chaos, and religious fanatics into a suspenseful thriller. It’s a great detective mystery action thriller story!