Kathryn Cook used to envision herself working as a materials engineer in a lab, but after graduating from UC Berkeley and spending time in the aerospace industry, she pondered how her work could make a greater impact.
That self-reflection in 2015 led Cook to Facebook, where the 29-year-old technical program manager leads a team that’s working on solar-powered drones to beam internet access to remote areas. About 4 billion people in the world don’t have internet access, according to a report last year by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development.
“I think access to information is extremely powerful and shouldn’t be limited,” said Cook, who is scheduled as a keynote speaker at the Society of Women Engineers’ WE Local conference Feb. 24 in San Jose. “People should be allowed to form their own thoughts and make their own decisions. Without all that information, it can be more difficult to form those decisions.”
For Cook, bridging the digital divide and encouraging more women to pursue engineering go hand in hand. She recently sat down with this newspaper at Facebook’s headquarters to chat about the work the tech firm has been doing within its solar-powered drone program, which is called Aquila. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How does a solar-powered drone deliver internet access to remote areas? I read there are lasers involved.
A: There’s a lot of technology that is behind it. Just at a very high conceptual level, you can think of the internet coming from some type of gateway or point of presence then going up to radio frequency communications up to the aircraft itself. Then from there, it’s being delivered down through some kind of radio frequency technology to users on the ground or being transmitted perhaps over optics to other aircraft in a chain.
Q: What is it like being a woman in a male-dominated field, and why do you think there are so few women engineers?
A: As an engineering student at UC Berkeley, I was very much involved with the Society of Women Engineers and there was a very strong community that encouraged young women to go into math and science. Being part of that very tight-knit community gave me this perception that it was kind of normal. When I did finally get out into industry, I started to recognize that wasn’t so much the case and we still have a long way to go. There are probably multiple aspects to the issue. One is encouraging young girls very early on to understand that engineering, math and science isn’t necessarily about a right or a wrong answer. It’s about the process and discovery that occurs to get there, and there might be multiple solutions to get to the same technology goal. As women grow up, there are a lot of opportunities out there, and while I think it’s very important for women to go into technology and science, I think it’s important to support them in whatever their goals are. One of the things I really love about working at Facebook is that it’s part of the conversation. One of the classes that they encourage us to take is about managing bias. I would definitely encourage people to learn more about their own biases and how they can manage those through their conversations and working environment.
Q: How do you think the lack of internet access impacts women and girls in poverty? Are they more negatively impacted?
Q: What have you learned so far from the data you’ve gathered from testing your solar-powered drone Aquila?
A: The general idea of flying high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft is not necessarily a new concept. We’re now finally at a point that the technology is available to finally do this. The challenge really comes with taking the state-of-the-art technology and integrating it into a platform that can perform the mission. The solar technology, the battery technology and the aircraft performance are three primary areas that are very critical to get right. We believe that’s possible, and that’s the mission we’re on. In terms of our long-term goal, it’s not just about proving the technology works, but also about making it cost effective.
Q: Other tech companies are looking at delivering internet access. Alphabet’s Google for example, shut down its solar-powered drone program and says it’s focusing more on high-altitude balloons. Why are you focusing on solar-powered drones, and what are the advantages?
A: I think it’s perhaps just a different approach to the same problem. We’re seeing promise in the path that we have and the data we’re collecting.
Q: Last July, Facebook completed its first test flight of Aquila in Arizona. Facebook has said it’s a success, despite a crash landing. What improvements have you made to Aquila since?
A: Being there on the ground, it was very much a success for us. We successfully proved our takeoff approach. We successfully flew for a full 90 minutes. We collected a lot of really great data from the platforms that we had, and we proved our autopilot functionality. While that flight did end in a structural failure, collecting all that data and testing (Aquila) to its limitations actually allowed us to feed that information back into the models and make some improvements. With respect to looking at the autopilot technology, our avionics, our power systems, our structure, we were able to take all that data and make improvements to the next flight series.
Q: What is your team focusing on this year, and what’s the next milestone you’re trying to hit?
A: We really just have a road map to perform long-endurance, high-altitude flights. Right now, our goals are really centered around gathering more data and just continuing to perform our flight test program.
Birthplace: Madison, WI
Position: Technical Program Manager, Connectivity Lab, Facebook
Previous jobs: Systems Engineer and Project Manager, Boeing
Education: Master of Science in Materials Science and Engineering from UC Berkeley
Residence: Northern California
Five facts about Kathryn Cook
1. I have lived in four distinct regions of the United States including Wisconsin, Maryland, Texas, California and Washington state.
2. I love cooking and trying out new recipes from all over the world. At the moment, I’m learning how to make Indian curries.
3. In my spare time, I enjoy exploring the outdoors by taking long bike rides or hikes.
4. Family is important to me. One tradition we have is our annual cookie day. Every year, for the last 30 years, my family has gathered during the holidays for a day-long baking extravaganza where we bake hundreds of cookies and sing along to holiday music.
5. My favorite food is rice. I frequently incorporate rice in breakfasts, lunches and dinners, so it might as well be its own food group.