Atkins is currently a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan, where she directs the Autonomous Flight Systems Laboratory, and until 2020 worked as the assistant director of the university’s Institute of Robotics. Most recently, during her reduced assignment at the university, she spent a year as a technical fellow at Collins Aerospace, gaining experience in research and development while providing expertise in artificial intelligence, aerospace, and machine learning.
“Not only has Ella joined us from one of the best aerospace engineering programs in the country, but she also has tremendous experience working with multidisciplinary partnerships and programs,” said Julia M. Ross, Dean of Engineering Paul and Dorothea Torgersen. “In particular, its focus on autonomous systems and the integration of computer science applications into space research challenges as well as robotics will be significant assets in continuing the division’s positive momentum.”
As an academic researcher, Atkins focused on perception, decision-making, and control algorithms to improve the performance and safety of unmanned aircraft systems and advanced air transport operations. With autonomous systems and artificial intelligence increasingly being applied to both aerospace and aerospace engineering applications, Atkins envisions a wealth of new opportunities to inform and exploit cloud-based data, real-time perception, and interpretable data structures to support optimal decision making with long duration mission autonomy and for systems Human-machine collaboration.
She was a key 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 to an entire division this fall. She is proud of the lasting impact that this vibrant and thriving program will have on future generations of engineers, supported and managed by a diverse group of robotics faculty of all ranks.
Atkins was drawn to Virginia Tech’s Aeronautical and Oceanic Engineering program because she saw a well-established, high-quality program full of potential for expansion into new areas of research. With a number of capital projects on the horizon, including plans for the long-awaited engineering presentation of the Mitchell Hall Building and the development of Virginia Tech’s campus for innovation in the greater Washington DC area, Atkins believes the department is in a position to build on and expand into new and strategic areas of direction. Attracting new faculty and potential undergraduate and graduate students.
“This is a pivotal moment, as the department prepares for significant growth and has the potential to become an even greater center of academic excellence,” Atkins said. “Enrollment and student demand in the program is high, and there is a lot of excitement with the investment in new teaching and research facilities both in Blacksburg and in close proximity to government agencies. I am also pleased to have the opportunity to collaborate and strengthen existing partnerships on campus with the Institute for National Security that serves National Security, Defense Needs, and a Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership that supports the safety and operational policy of autonomous and electronic physical systems.”
Atkins previously collaborated with Virginia Tech faculty through its participation in the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, a multi-university college/industrial collaborative research center sponsored by the National Science Foundation. She is excited about the potential for use of Virginia Tech’s facilities, such as the fortified Drone Park facility, hangar and airstrip at the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory, and is eager to collaborate with multidisciplinary research groups, such as the Center for Naval Independence and Robotics.
Recent research led by Atkins includes investigation of airspace geofencing for safety and traffic management for unmanned aircraft systems, mapping of an intelligent service system for low-altitude airspace traffic management, and cyber-physical communications for collaborative human-robot navigation. She also has expertise in marine robotics, having previously developed a solar-powered autonomous seaplane called Flying Fish that takes off and lands on water, the first craft of its kind.
Atkins has published more than 250 papers and has advised over 25 Ph.D.s. the students. She has received numerous awards for her research and leadership, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Intelligent Systems Award in 2022, the University of Michigan’s 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 Executive Committee of the University of Michigan School of Engineering, where he supported training and events on unconscious bias aimed at breaking down barriers between students, staff, and faculty. She has been involved in recruitment efforts at Society of Women Engineers national conferences and mentored doctoral candidates in the Rackham Merit Fellowship Program in Michigan.
Atkins succeeds Eric Patterson, who has 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 in office, the department has experienced significant and unprecedented growth in terms of student demand, enrollment numbers, and a growing number of members faculty, research expenditures and funding, and through the expansion and development of research and teaching facilities.
Additionally, under his leadership, the department became the world’s first named and awarded department of aerospace or ocean engineering, due to a generous commitment of $14 million from 1982 alumnus Kevin T. Crofton in 2016.
Since Patterson’s departure, Professor Robert Canfield has held the position of interim department chair. “We appreciate Bob’s leadership over the past year during this transition period, and he has put the department and its programs in good standing for Ella’s arrival,” Ross said.
A native of West Virginia, Atkins received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, and master’s and doctoral degrees. in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Michigan. She previously worked in the aerospace industry as a Structural Dynamics Engineer before earning her Ph.D. He later worked at the School of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan.
Atkins has been active in the professional community, serving as a fellow at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and by leading on technical committees and organizing conferences, and is currently editor-in-chief of the AIAA Journal of Aerospace Information Systems.