Infrastructure may not seem like the most exciting topic, but the innovation and technical advancements involved in improving our nation’s transportation and logistics sector is revolutionary. In this podcast, Dr. Gary Deel talks to APU transportation and logistics professor Dr. Kandis Wyatt about the vast scope of what’s considered “infrastructure,” which is much more than roads and bridges. Learn about innovative technologies that could change the way we think of transportation like space flight, drones, artificial intelligence, electric vehicle infrastructure, wide-spread broadband internet, and much more.
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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast, Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about infrastructure in America. My guest today is Dr. Kandis Wyatt. Kandis is a full-time professor in the School of Business, Transportation and Logistics Management program.
She earned her doctorate in public administration with a specific concentration in organizational change and supply chain management. In 2011, she earned her project management professional certification and a master’s certificate in project management from George Washington University. In 2019, she acquired a certification in logistics, transportation, and distribution, and was recognized by the president and CEO of the Delta Research and Educational Foundation for her work advocating the Delta Teacher Efficacy Campaign. Kandis, welcome to Intellectible, and thank you for being our guest today.
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: Dr. Deel, it’s a pleasure to speak with you today.
Dr. Gary Deel: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Infrastructure isn’t necessarily thought of as a sexy topic. In fact, it’s been sort of chided and ridiculed for being the least sexy topic that can ever be discussed, whether it be in politics or public discourse, in general. But tell us a little bit about how you became involved in infrastructure. And specifically, I know that your focus is in transportation and logistics. Can you give a little bit of background on your work with that?
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: Sure. So I actually have about 30 years of experience and I’ve worked in a variety of areas. I’ve worked in research, I’ve worked in the federal government and I’ve also worked in academia. Like many professors at American Public University, I have prior work experience before starting my career as a professor.
My background in transportation and logistics actually stems from eight years working at NESDIS. It’s a long acronym and it stands for the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, NESDIS. While I was at NESDIS, I worked on two environmental satellite programs. One was called NPOESS another acronym, national polar orbiting environmental satellite system. And the second satellite program I worked on was GOESS, which is the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite System.
So you’re probably thinking, “Okay, how does satellites relate to transportation and logistics?” Launching an environmental satellite is a multi-billion dollar, billion with a B, billion dollar operation. And it can take a decade to move from idea to implementation. These are unique satellites because they take measurements of the earth’s weather, the earth’s oceans, as well as the environment. How did I become involved in logistics? Well, the logistics of a satellite operation can be really complex. Let me take you through the steps to just build a satellite.
First you have to decide which instruments will be placed on the satellite to take measurements of the earth. Most instruments measure surface temperature, wind, lightning strikes, cloud heights, moisture, those types of things. You have to build the instrument. Then you have to test the instrument. Then you have to put the instrument on the bus—and that’s what we called the name of the satellite hardware in which everything is put on.
Then you have to test the entire craft to make sure that all the major components can function either independently or simultaneously. Then the satellite is actually dismantled and then it’s shipped to the launch site, then reassembled, retested, and then it’s attached to rocket boosters and prepared for launch.
While I just took you through five or six steps that may sound simple, it’s actually very complex and it involves both transportation and logistics experts, among other people, to get the job done. I’ve been able to take my background in meteorology and hydrology and also utilize supply chain management techniques to support environmental satellite operations. That’s just a little bit of my background in terms of how I had a background in meteorology and hydrology and that actually spanned into transportation and logistics.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s perfect. And obviously, I have a little bit of background in space studies myself so I’m familiar with the challenges that are involved with getting anything safely to space. And obviously fingers crossed that it works when it gets there, because that can be a violent ride on the way up. So the engineering that goes into any satellite or spacecraft to make sure that it survives the trip and is still intact and working when it gets there is a real challenge.
For those listeners who may not be entirely familiar with what the term infrastructure means, we hear it thrown around in public discourse, but we know have a comprehensive appreciation for what we’re talking about. You’ve covered a little bit of it with respect to climatology and the transportation sector, but are there other pieces to the puzzle that make up what is infrastructure? And I guess, more specifically, why is it important to us? Why should anybody care about this topic?
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: Well, it’s a great question. At the time of this recording, the Biden administration is putting a very big emphasis on the passing of a transportation and infrastructure bill. It’s actually called the Infrastructure Investments and Job Act. And the Senate passed the act in August and the House is on track to vote on it in September.
Your question is, what is infrastructure? Well, according to this bill, it’s a lot of things. Most people, when they think about infrastructure, they think about roads, bridges, construction. Those are all aspects of the bill. And the bill provides funding for new jobs, as well as for provisions for job training. And to create a pipeline of future people in the construction industry, especially more women and people from under-represented populations. But in addition to roads and bridges, there are so many other aspects of infrastructure that, I think, like you said, people don’t think about because it’s not exactly the fun topic to talk about.
But in addition to roads and bridges, railroads, we need upgrades and maintenance for our railroads. Think about our power grid. At the time of this recording, Hurricane Ida just made landfall a couple of days ago in Southeast Louisiana, and there’s over 2 million people without power. We need to have a plan that provides grid reliability, grid resilience, and unfortunately in that area, grid rebuilding and restructuring. Power grid is a part of infrastructure as well.
Here’s another one, broadband also known as the internet. We need to have strong internet, not only in our communities, but think about it, what if you’re driving down the highway and you can seamlessly connect to the internet without having to use your own personal device. What kind of information can you communicate? I’m going back to my weather degree, but we could tell people when there are tornadoes or wind or snow or ice from the comfort of our car, because we can connect to broadband. There’s a lot of possibilities with that. But also, we just need to increase broadband for rural areas as well as low-income communities as well.
Infrastructure includes water. I know in this country we take water for granted. You can go and get water from your tap. You can get bottled water, usually at a very reasonable price. But there’s places around the world where water is not as easy to obtain as one might think. Let’s go back to Flint, Michigan where there was so much contamination that they found that they needed to spend money for lead pipe replacement. And then there’s also just a lot of manmade chemicals that are making it into our water stream. Infrastructure also means developing ways for clean water for all citizens.
Resilience. Another thing that’s been in the news over the past couple of months is cybersecurity. Resilience means we need to protect ourselves, this is infrastructure, from attacks, cyberattacks. And then likewise, another part of resilience is climate change mitigation. This same bill, because I’m still talking about the bill, the same bill talks about droughts and floods and wildfires and mitigation and coastal erosion, all things that we’ve seen in the news over the past couple of months. And what we need to do to protect our infrastructure from climate change and weather and environmental hazards.
Another one, of course, is public transportation. What are we doing in some cities that literally don’t have a bus system, a subway system, or a rail system? And then our airports, we have some air traffic control towers that are over 65 years old. So definitely some of our airports need money for major upgrades, as well as expansions as well.
Another one is remediation. Think about some of the mines that we have in the United States, as well as old gas and oil wells that might need to be plugged or repaired. I live in the Maryland area and not too far away from me is the Port of Baltimore. And so ports are another area of this bill because they talk about making significant investments in port infrastructure. And for those of you who don’t live near a port, the Suez Canal, I think that was a perfect example, just a few months ago, where you had a barge, it became blocked or stuck, and it literally caused a multi-country, multi-week backup. And it also caused a lot of items to surge in price because the supply-and-demand balance became imbalanced. So this all can be drawn to ports where you need to make sure that you can efficiently move in, unload, load and leave the port in a streamlined amount of time.
Okay. There are other parts of the bill, but let me wrap this up really quickly. Another one is safety: highway safety, pedestrian safety. And as I mentioned, also, pipeline safety is important. In the West right now, in terms of whether there are extreme drought conditions. This bill also covers water treatment, water storage, water facilities in the West, so that they can mitigate this drought, which is continuing to worsen.
And then some of the things that I think the bill makes really exciting is that, hey, electric vehicles. I don’t know if you have an electric vehicle Dr. Deel, but the goal of this bill is that they are projecting that half of all new cars by 2030 will be electric. If you have electric cars, you need electric charging stations. If you need electric charging stations somebody’s got to build them.
In this bill, I think there’s like $7.5 billion, with a B, dollars to create electric vehicle charging stations. And then likewise with school buses, the goal is to get these school buses to have zero emissions and to make many of these school buses that you now see on the roads, as our youth are going back to school, we want to make these school buses electric.
That in a nutshell is a lot of the things that are kind of packed into this word called infrastructure. Like you said, simple word, but it can go in so many different directions.
Dr. Gary Deel: I’m glad you covered that scope for us. Because as you mentioned there’s so many things, I think, a lot of us take for granted. The idea that our roads and bridges will be here tomorrow, yes. But all of the other elements that we just assume will continue to exist, but we don’t necessarily appreciate the amount of work, and, frankly, the amount of money that goes into supporting those networks of resources that all of society uses.
And yes, I drive a Tesla as my daily vehicle. I’m familiar with the electric vehicle challenges. Most of my driving doesn’t rely on public charging stations because I do most of my commuting locally here. So I’m able to make it from A to B and back home to charge in my garage. But for those folks that do need to drive long distances on a daily or weekly basis, you’ve got to have that network of infrastructure.
And that also made me think about your earlier points with respect to internet and broadband availability on the road, because our vehicles rely on that. Particularly, as we start to think about automated driving vehicles, self-driving cars, in other words. And Tesla’s sort of leading the way with their autopilot software. But it’s also reliant on weather conditions and traffic conditions, and having that data available, I think would be helpful. As opposed to having to navigate that and encounter it in real-time as the car enters a storm area or a construction zone. It would be useful to have that in advance and sort of predict traffic patterns and take detours if needed to navigate around something like, say, an accident or a construction zone. All of these things go a long way toward managing the challenges that we all face in our society, traffic and the kinds of things we worry about day-in and day-out.
And I’m glad that you brought up the infrastructure bill, because it certainly received attention and, so far, as the budget process is concerned, it’s an enormous expense. I think the projection is somewhere around $2 trillion for this package that’s being reviewed. But is this something that, for the sake of history and perspective for our listeners, I don’t recall infrastructure in this context or in terms of this scope, this size of a bill being something that made so much news and headlines in several previous presidential administrations.
How often do we make this kind of an investment? Is this a once every 10 years or once every two years, and we just don’t talk about it as much as we’re talking about it now? Or is this something that hasn’t happened in say a decade or more?
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: That is a great question. I think the very baseline, foundational definition of infrastructure is basically making sure we can navigate our roads. If you think at the federal level, well, the federal level usually handles highways and interstates, and that was mainly for our military so that they had the ability to get from one location to the other. To answer your question, I think infrastructure has always been around, but it’s more of a local issue as opposed to a national issue. And now we’re on the national spotlight and the national platform with this.
But if you look at your own city and your own town, on a yearly basis you’re probably doing some of these things in some way, shape or form. Just go to your local city council meeting, and I would place money if I was a betting woman, I would say that one of these topics is probably on your agenda at every meeting. What I want to say is these are more local issues. And I think this is the first time where we’ve said on a national platform or in the national spotlight that, “Hey, these are things that we really need to handle and maybe the best way to handle them as not at the local level, but at the national level.”
Dr. Gary Deel: Is there a lot of controversy, as there often is among federalist-minded people versus that national outlook, that this kind of thing should be centralized, as opposed to the idea that, of course, the antithesis to that is that we need smaller government as opposed to bigger government and that these decisions should be relegated to the state level. Is there any kind of prevailing majority on the opinions with regard to whether or not these tasks are better handled by our federal government, as opposed to the local and state and municipal governments?
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: That’s a good point. I want to introduce a topic or a term it’s called social justice equity. And I think that across the United States, you can literally go from city to city and town to town. And even just drive from one part of a city to the other and you see that there are inequities when it comes to infrastructure. There’s inequities in just the roads. It might even be the pipes and the water.
Of course, you’re going to have varying opinions. I think we all can agree that we really want these things to improve. And like you said, the question is what’s the best way to handle it. Should it be the local level, the state level or the federal level? I think we’re still out to lunch on that one. We don’t have a uniform opinion, but we can see looking back 10, 20, 30 years, we have tried it at the local level, the state level and the national level with varying degrees of success and, likewise, varying degrees of failure as well.
I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing this on the national platform right now, is that, because, depending on where you go and where you live, your opinion of infrastructure may be very different than someone else’s.
Dr. Gary Deel: In the last few weeks we saw headlines from several billionaires, Richard Branson who oversees Virgin Galactic, sort of a burgeoning space tourism company. And of course, Jeff Bezos, the owner/CEO of Amazon. Or I believe former CEO, I think he’s stepped down and passed the mantle to someone that is handling the company on his behalf. But both of these individuals went to “space,” depending on how you define that. And of course there’s different interpretations and definitions of whether that’s the Kármán line, at 100 kilometers in altitude, or it’s some other arbitrary measure. But how does that relate to transportation, logistics, and infrastructure? And what does that mean for us?
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: Great question. Until recently, transportation was basically grouped into five buckets: land, ocean, air, rail, and pipeline. Land of course is trucks and cars. Ocean is ships. Air is planes. Rail is trains. And pipeline is literally transporting something that’s usually of a liquid nature, such as oil.
However, space just recently is the next frontier when it comes to transportation and logistics. Personally, I think it’s great. I think it’s great that we are thinking of new ways to advance how we move from one location to the other. I mean, to put it very simply.
You mentioned Jeff Bezos, you’ve mentioned Richard Branson, and I want to applaud both of them. I think they have challenged our traditional thinking when it comes to transportation and space flight. Because when I was young, when I thought about space, I thought about NASA. And NASA is a federal government agency and they put the first person on the moon.
And now fast forward to 2021, and we’re going to have a commercialized space flight industry. I think that we’re going to see a lot of advancements in this area because you’re going to have different ways of thinking, and they’re going to introduce their different points in the marketplace.
The point is, I think, with any topic, but especially transportation, logistics, and infrastructure, we need to constantly challenge our norms and think about new ways of doing things. Just a couple of days ago, I think it was another company, ASTRA Space, and I think they made a launch attempt two days ago, as well. The point is the possibilities are endless. And I really want to encourage people, not only to enter this field because it’s exciting, and I do think that there’s so many opportunities for people, but because the possibilities are endless.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think those are good points. The ASTRA attempt was, unfortunately, not successful, going back to the adage that space is hard.
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: If we rewind, I’m sure Jeff Bezos had some failures. And I think if we rewind Richard Branson had some failures. And I think that in any industry when you’re charting the unknown, you are going to have failures. But I think if you learn from those failures and you adjust and you move forward with that knowledge, it’s going to make you better in the long run.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. Now, one of the things I found most interesting, not from Branson or Bezos, but actually from Elon Musk, who’s of course made a lot of news in the space sector over the last decade with his own company, SpaceX, is a proposal that appears to be in the works or at least still on the table for the company, and that is intra-planetary rocket transport.
When we think about space, logistics and transportation, we often think about going to space, whether it be for research purposes or some imagined economies that are built out of space mining or tourism. Some look to the future of colonizing other planets. But one of the proposals that’s on the table from SpaceX, that I find interesting to think about, is the idea that we might use rockets here on earth, simply to get from place to place in a much more efficient and frankly, faster way than we currently can with airplanes.
It takes, I’m estimating here, but you know, somewhere on the order of 20 to 30 hours to go from the United States to a place like Australia, depending on where you’re leaving and where you’re landing. But with rocket transport and the speeds that you’d be able to go, if you were going there by way of a rocket, that would leave, say New York City and land in Brisbane, you could do that trip and something on the order of like a half an hour. This was a proposal that was put forth years ago and sort of a press release and a big expose say with SpaceX.
And I’ve written about it previously in terms of the challenges associated with space flight for the consumer. And what that means in terms of needed training. You’d have to go through six weeks of astronaut camp before you can make your trip to Australia for your family vacation or whatnot, but if those details could be managed in such a way that they were logistically feasible, and of course the price point wasn’t astronomical, it could absolutely revolutionize the state of, particularly, international and sort of circumnavigable flights around the earth to long distance trips.
And SpaceX, at least, seems to believe that there’s a viable path to making it commercially marketable and competitive. In other words, you wouldn’t have to pay a quarter million dollars for your flight to Australia. That they could get this somewhere within an order of magnitude on par with commercial airline travel. It’s exciting to think about what that might mean for the future of logistics terrestrially here on earth, in addition, to the prospects of what we would do with our rockets in space and on other planets.
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because, I go back to my NASA example that when we placed a man on the moon, many of the technologies and the theories and the processes that we used to get that person on the moon were then transferred into everyday life. The computer that we know of, the touchscreen that we know of, just some of our supply chain logistics theories, a lot of that came from NASA.
Take your example, I definitely think that intra-space opportunities are right before us. I think it’s an exciting time. And I do think that as we continue to move forward with the technology, we can eventually get it to a price point that would be affordable to more, I don’t know about many, but affordable to more. And then also some of those technologies can trickle down to citizens who can really benefit from it.
Dr. Gary Deel: I’m curious to know, since we’re on the subject of Musk and his ventures and ideas and sort of lofty ambitions, do you have an opinion on the other side or another side, I guess it’s better set of what he’s doing with his company. I believe they call it the Boring Company. Pun intended, which is the underground tunneling that’s taking place.
He has a belief that that’s the future of logistics and transportation, is to have dedicated tunnels underneath the ground in virtually every metropolitan area that completely eliminates the traffic and congestion that we’re all sort of all too familiar with on our highways and roads. Because the idea being, in theory, we can tunnel infinitely in different directions and underground 6, 7, 8 layers deep to accommodate as many lanes of traffic as we need. And that this is impervious to weather, so we don’t need to worry about if it’s raining outside, above ground. Do you have any thoughts on how realistic that is, in so far as it is sort of intended to help with a lot of the problems associated with our transportation and logistics environment today?
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: Yeah. Great question. Full disclosure, I have not read that area of research by Elon Musk. I’ll speak in very generic terms. I think the future is open. I like to think outside the box. I do think that the possibilities are endless. And yes, what we’re just talking about is a subway system that basically connects city to city, regardless of how far you are away from that city.
I do remember someone saying either we’re going to go high or we’re going to go low. And they were talking about infrastructure. Meaning, the next chapter of infrastructure is, like you said, digging deep and coming up with these new ways of subway systems or either going high, meaning you’re not necessarily flying, but you maybe have some type of transport system that is at the height of a skyscraper or something like that.
I think sometimes we just have to re-imagine what the future looks like. What does transportation look like? How do we get from one point to another? And I really think that as we continue to move forward with researching and the funding opportunities, I really think we’re going to see huge gains in the infrastructure industry in the years to come.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think that’s a great segue to bring in some discussion of drone technology. I know that you are scheduled to present at the Strategic Space Education and Strategic Applications conference in September. That’s the SESA conference. I’m also scheduled to be there on a panel at some point during the few days that this will be going on in September. And I know you’re one of the first-day speakers there, and you’ve got some plans to talk about AI and drone technology. Can you talk a little bit about that here in terms of what you plan to discuss relating to transportation logistics and how drones might be a part of that equation?
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: Yeah, absolutely. First, let me just talk about AI. Because for me, AI is a very common term, but it may not be a common term for our listeners. AI is artificial intelligence and many people also call it machine learning. Simply said, you are trying to teach a machine to think and act like a human. We have a lot of AI around us. Some of you may have a smartphone or a smart watch or a personal device like Alexa or Siri, something that can execute simple demands like on-demand, if you’re in your vehicle. Now, take AI and drones and this is a really exciting new area of research. How can AI and drones work together?
Well, first, we’re seeing that drones are being used to deliver items like amazon.com, something within three, four or five miles. Drones are being used as we speak right now. I said earlier in the podcast that Hurricane Ida made landfall a couple of days ago, and there are some roads that are not navigable. How do you get to people? How do you give them resources? How do you even see if someone needs help?
Drones are being used to survey damage and rescue individuals where roads may be obstructed. Drones can be used to deliver library books during the midst of a pandemic. I wrote an article about this for American Public University a couple of months ago. Where, kids who are in remote locations and they can’t get to a library, but they need books for their education.
Drones can be used for police enforcement. They can be the eyes on the ground for our first responders in so many cases. Drones can be used for education. Drones can be used for aerial photography. Not only to survey damage, but to survey some of the most beautiful things that we have here on our wonderful earth.
Take all that. And now let’s apply it to S-E-S-A, the Space Education and Science Application conference. This conference is bringing together the space world and the education world to talk about the next steps in these two areas. I am very proud that I’m going to be speaking on the first day. I’m going to be speaking with Stevenson Demorcy. He’s the CEO of STEAMedDrones.com. And, basically, his goal is to create a pipeline of drone technologists who are from low-socioeconomic areas. He has afterschool programs, and I should say, most of them are free, with an emphasis on helping people understand how to build drones, how to utilize drones, how to operate drones. He also has programs that have emphasis on encouraging young women, as well as minorities to be a part of those programs. Our presentation is going to be all that and more. We’re going to talk about drones, drone technology from a research perspective, but from an applied science perspective as well.
Dr. Gary Deel: I certainly agree with your points here. I think that drones have a huge place in the future of our transportation and logistics operating environment. I think economically they make sense. And technologically there’s a lot of advantages there.
As I’ve talked about with, with others on the podcast in the past, there’s of course silver linings, or not so silver, with respect to concerns about high unemployment rates and displacement of labor with technology. But I don’t necessarily think that should stop us from moving forward in the progress of advancing our societies in more sophisticated ways. For one, I’m looking forward to what the future holds in terms of these new innovations and what bright minds are doing with these new advances.
Well, this has been perfect. I really appreciate your contributions to this discussion and enlightening our listeners on what infrastructure is, how it relates to their lives and why they should care about it. Before we sign off, were there any other topics you wanted to cover or any other points you wanted to address?
Dr. Kandis Wyatt: No. I just wanted people to know, just like you said, infrastructure may not be sexy, but it’s here to stay. I really do think the possibilities are endless for future job opportunities, for future ways of just us learning about infrastructure, how to get from one point to the other. I really encourage people to think more about infrastructure all around them and how it affects their daily lives. Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you and your audience today. And I had an awesome time today. Thank you.
Dr. Gary Deel: My pleasure. And likewise. Thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics. Thanks for joining me today for this episode of Intellectible. Thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting the various APU-sponsored blogs and podcasts. Be well and stay safe, everyone.