James Dunn

A portrait photograph of James Dunn.
As computers and sensors become smaller and manufactured at scale, loads of new possibilities come about.

What does your research focus on, and what is an example of a project you have contributed to?

I started out spending all my time in front of a computer writing algorithms and software. A couple years in, my group leader gave me the opportunity to build up a radar operator's control panel — my first foray into developing physical hardware. I really enjoyed that and have spent a portion of my time with sensor hardware ever since.

My research involves figuring out how to make radar and optical sensors do new and exciting things. The most longstanding project I've worked on is the Airborne Radar Testbed. It started in 2018 as a single-channel radar system on a small plane using a simple horn antenna. Our team has since evolved it into a multichannel phased array radar system with a complementary optical and infrared camera turret on a much larger plane.

How would you describe a typical day at the Laboratory?

On any one day, I may be writing software to control a sensor, assembling or troubleshooting a piece of radar or optical hardware, drafting PowerPoint presentations or emails, writing software to analyze sensor data, flying in our test bed aircraft, working at a field test site, or taking a sensor system on or off of a plane.

Which aspect about the future of your field excites you most?

I'm excited by how small, inexpensive, and user-friendly technology is becoming. Cost and size are a huge barrier to entry for everything in remote sensing. As computers and sensors become smaller and manufactured at scale, loads of new possibilities come about. For example, the decreasing cost and size of radar and optical sensors has led to their use on small drones and self-driving cars.

Where are you from?

I grew up in the San Francisco area and spent my college years and twenties in Los Angeles, where I worked for seven years at a small defense contractor prior to joining the Laboratory in 2015.

What is one life lesson you have learned?

One of the most memorable and underappreciated quotes I've ever heard was from a news interview with an ex-CIA agent: "Everyone believes they are the good guy." When I was young, my thinking was much more black and white when it came to politics and world events. I needed there to be a good guy and a bad guy like in Star Wars. In the real world, there is right and wrong on both sides. Something that is heroic when viewed through one lens can be aggressive and antagonistic when viewed through another.