Ella Atkins has been appointed head of the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, effective Aug. 1.

Atkins currently holds the position of professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, where she directs the Autonomous Aerospace Systems Lab and until 2020 served as associate director of the university’s Robotics Institute. Recently, during a period of reduced appointment at the university, she spent a year as a technical fellow at Collins Aerospace, gaining industry research and development experience while also offering expertise in aerospace artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

“Not only is Ella joining us from one of the top aerospace engineering programs in the country, but she also brings tremendous experience in working with transdisciplinary partnerships and programs,” said Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “In particular, her emphasis on autonomous systems and the integration of computer science applications into aerospace research challenges as well as robotics will be great assets in continuing the department’s positive momentum.”

As an academic researcher, Atkins has focused on perception, decision-making, and control algorithms to improve performance and safety of unmanned aircraft systems and advanced air mobility operations. With autonomous systems and artificial intelligence increasingly applied to both aeronautics and space engineering applications, Atkins envisions a wealth of new opportunities to inform and exploit cloud-based data, real-time perception, and explainable data structures to support optimal decision-making with long-duration mission autonomy and for collaborative human-machine systems.

She was an integral partner in building the University of Michigan’s robotics program from the ground up, serving on the initial steering committee and participating in its growth into an institute as well as its pending transition into a full department this fall. She takes pride in the lasting impact this vibrant and thriving program will have on future generations of engineers, which is supported and driven by a diverse group of robotics faculty at all ranks. 

Atkins was drawn to Virginia Tech's aerospace and ocean engineering program because she sees an established, high-quality program brimming with potential to expand into new areas of research. With a number of capital projects on the horizon, including plans for the long-awaited engineering showcase building Mitchell Hall and the development of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area, Atkins believes the department is positioned to build upon and expand into new and strategic thrust areas, attracting both new faculty and prospective undergraduate and graduate students.

“This is a pivotal moment, as the department is poised for remarkable growth and has the potential to become an even greater center of academic excellence,” said Atkins. “Enrollment and student demand for the program is high, and there is much excitement with the investment in new teaching and research facilities in both Blacksburg and in close proximity to government agencies. I am also thrilled at the chance to collaborate and strengthen existing partnerships on campus with the National Security Institute serving national security and defense needs and the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership supporting safety and policy of operations in autonomous and cyber-physical systems.” 

Atkins previously collaborated with Virginia Tech faculty through her involvement in the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, a multi-university Industry/University Cooperative Research Center sponsored by the National Science Foundation. She is excited by the prospect of utilizing Virginia Tech facilities, such as the Drone Park netted facility and the hangar and airstrip at the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory, and eager to collaborate with the multidisciplinary research groups, such as the Center for Marine Autonomy and Robotics.

Recent research led by Atkins includes the investigation of airspace geofencing for safety and traffic management of unmanned aircraft systems, mapping out a smart service system for traffic management in low-altitude airspace, and cyber-physical communication for cooperative human-robot mobility. She additionally has experience with marine robotics, having previously developed an autonomous solar-powered seaplane named Flying Fish that takes off and lands on water, the first craft of its kind.

Atkins has published more than 250 papers and advised more than 25 Ph.D. students. She has received numerous accolades for her research and leadership, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Intelligent Systems Award in 2022, the University of Michigan Robotics Leadership Award in 2020, and the Inaugural President’s Award for National and State Leadership at the University of Michigan in 2017. 

Committed to diversity and inclusion, Atkins previously served on the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering Executive Committee, supporting unconscious bias training and events aimed at breaking down barriers among students, staff, and faculty. She has participated in recruitment efforts at national conferences for the Society for Women Engineers and mentored doctoral candidates within the Michigan’s Rackham Merit Fellowship program. 

Atkins succeeds Eric Paterson, who led the department since 2012 and was appointed executive director of the new Virginia Tech National Security Institute in late 2021. During his nine years at the helm, the department saw significant and unprecedented growth in terms of student demand and enrollment numbers and growth in number of faculty, research expenditures and funding, and through the expansion and development of research and instructional facilities. 

Additionally, under his leadership, the department became the first named and endowed aerospace engineering or ocean engineering department in the world, due to the generous $14 million commitment from 1982 alumnus Kevin T. Crofton in 2016.

Since Paterson’s departure, Professor Robert Canfield has served as interim department head. “We appreciate Bob’s leadership over the past year during this time of transition, and he has positioned the department and its programs well for Ella’s arrival,” said Ross.

A native of West Virginia, Atkins earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a master's degree and Ph.D. in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan. She previously worked in the aerospace industry as a structural dynamics engineer prior to obtaining her Ph.D. and subsequently served on the aerospace engineering department faculty at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan. 

Atkins has been active in the professional community, serving as a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and through leadership in technical committees, conference organization, and currently as editor-in-chief of the AIAA Journal of Aerospace Information Systems.

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