‘Army to the Corps’ Electrical engineer helps change the face of aviation

By April 8, 2014September 17th, 2018Faces of the Force, Talent Management
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Faces of the Force: Mary Ottman


POSITION: Deputy Product Director
UNIT: Product Directorate, Unmanned Systems Airspace Integration Concepts, Redstone Arsenal, Ala.
EDUCATION: B.S.E.E., University of Alabama in Huntsville; MBA, Auburn University; Master of Management and Leadership, Webster University


By Steve Stark


The Army’s Ground-Based Sense-and-Avoid System (GBSAA) is the first system of its kind and it’s changing the face of unmanned aviation—and as its deputy product director Mary Ottman is at the heart of the development effort.

It’s a DOD system that the Army has taken the lead on, specifically within the Army’s Project Management Office for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (PM UAS), and eventually, it’s intended to enable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly without visual observers in commercial airspace controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Deputy product director for GBSAA is just one of many jobs that Ottman has held over nearly 25 years working with the Army as a DA civilian. In some respects, the job is a testament to her curiosity and talent, but in another sense, it’s a tribute to the excellent cooperative education program that got Ottman’s foot in the door at the U.S. Army’s Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center in Redstone Arsenal, Ala., in the first place.

At a time when September 11 was merely another date, Ottman went to work for the Army on that day in 1989 as a cooperative education student. At the time, she thought that she’d work for the Army for a couple of years before going on to industry, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Indeed, she will celebrate her 25th anniversary as an Army civilian this September.

Ottman is, by degree, an electrical engineer with a family legacy of service. Her father served in the Army in Vietnam, and then in the reserves, eventually retiring as a major. He studied nuclear physics and worked in that field in industry, and all the time she was growing up, Ottman said, her dad emphasized education, particularly math and science.

Initially, “a friend of mine talked to me about pursuing electrical engineering and it sounded interesting—I was waffling between computer science and electrical engineering, but went with electrical engineering,” she said. She earned her bachelor’s from the University of Alabama at Huntsville in electrical and computer engineering.

When Ottman started working for the Army as a college student in the co-op program, she worked on projects such as transistor-based video electronics design, soldering connections on circuit boards used in the Advanced Kinetic Energy Missile, and then went on to work in software development.

“Literally, as a co-op student, you start getting exposure to real-world applications while you’re in school. [The co-op program] is a great way for students to ‘try before you buy,’ so to speak, to get exposure to all the different projects that are going on. They’ve got computers, software simulation, trainers, propulsion—there are many different areas you can get exposure to at the R&D [research and development] center before you decide what kind of job you want to pursue as a career. It’s a win-win for both the student and the Army. For the student, they can figure out what they want to do. As for the Army, they are building that next generation [of talent], and they’re also getting that student labor to work those tasks and free up engineers to do more complex things.”

“A lot of people think that electrical engineering is home wiring,” she said, laughing. “That’s not it at all. Basically, it’s such a broad field—it’s one of those fields that, in school, you learn a lot of different things, and it depends on what job you get and what you’re interested in” as to where you end up. “So you could end up working at power companies, cell phone companies, in power transmission or you could end up working on circuit boards or semiconductor devices. It’s a versatile degree,” she said. It’s almost like a business degree in the sense that you have a lot of flexibility in terms of where you can go with it. “It really just depends on your interest area.”

Her timing was excellent—using her training and her curiosity, she found her way into writing software, sometimes at the 1’s and 0’s level, and developed just as the standards and the industry were beginning to mature.

Ottman attributes the longevity of her career with the Army to the variety of opportunities the Army has provided. Each time she wanted to advance, the chance to compete for interesting job openings was available. “It seemed like when the time was right, a new opportunity came along.” The Army also provided educational opportunities. Through the Army, she earned her master’s in business administration from Auburn University, and a master’s in management and leadership from Webster University while simultaneously completing a Senior Service Fellowship at Defense Acquisition University.

FOTF: What do you do in the Army? Why is it important?

OTTMAN: Currently I am co-managing Ground-Based-Sense-and-Avoid System Development as a Deputy Product Director. Simply put, this system helps an unmanned aircraft detect and avoid other traffic in the sky. For example, when you fly to Orlando, Fla. on your way to Disney World, you fly through the National Airspace System. If your pilot sees other aircraft, he will avoid them. Unmanned aircraft don’t have pilots onboard, and GBSAA allows them to sense and avoid other traffic in the sky. Putting this system in place enables unmanned aircraft to avoid other traffic just like a manned aircraft does in the airspace.

In a nutshell, current FAA regulations require that aircraft be able to see and avoid other aircraft. Since unmanned aircraft systems do not have a pilot on board, they cannot comply with these regulations without additional mitigations. Currently, unmanned aircraft are required to fly with either ground observers watching them from the ground, or they can be followed by chase aircraft such as a Cessna or military aircraft. The purpose is for the observer to alert the unmanned aircraft pilot of potential traffic conflicts with other aircraft such that they can avoid them. GBSAA will allow unmanned aircraft to sense (with the use of ground sensors) other aircraft in the sky and maneuver around them as manned aircraft would.

The more technical answer is that, as Deputy Product Director, I co-manage the development and fielding of the GBSAA. It is the first system of its kind and is changing the face of unmanned aviation. The Unmanned Systems Airspace Integration Concepts Product Directorate serves as the DOD lead for GBSAA. While serving as lead, the Army fielded and flew the first prototype GBSAA system at El Mirage, Calif. in 2011. Based on that success, the Army is moving forward to conduct operations with the first DO-178C compliant GBSAA system in 2015.

FOTF: Why did you choose the Army for your career? What is your greatest satisfaction in being part of the Army?

OTTMAN: I began my career with the Army on Sept. 11, 1989 as a cooperative education student. I enjoyed the job immensely and remained with the Army upon graduation from college. I take immense pride and satisfaction in being able to serve the warfighter. My father and my uncles were all in the military and I know the sacrifices that they made to serve our country. It is very rewarding to participate in developing systems that increase our warfighters’ capabilities and their safety so that they can defend our freedoms and return home to their families.

FOTF: What has your experience been like? What has surprised you the most?

OTTMAN: In my 24 years with the Army, it has been both surprising and extremely rewarding that as my interests and desire for professional growth have changed, career opportunities have always been available that have allowed me to stretch personally and professionally. As a result, I have been able to contribute and serve during my civilian career in more ways than I would have ever dreamed possible.

I began my career as a cooperative education electrical engineering student performing tasks such as wire-wrapping and soldering circuit boards. This led to the pursuit of a career in software development, with activities such as writing assembly code, developing expertise in visual programming, trainer software development, and then tactical software development. Along the way I gained more responsibility. After being recognized for my leadership abilities, the Army sent me to school for an MBA and also to the Senior Service College Fellowship program at the Defense Acquisition University where I also gained my masters in leadership. Following the SSCF program, I took my current position with the GBSAA program. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience to be part of a program that is changing the face of aviation.

Related Links:

PEO Aviation

PM Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Army celebrates 2 million hours of unmanned aircraft flight


  • “Faces of the Force” is an online feature highlighting members of the Army Acquisition Workforce. Produced by the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center Communication Division, and working closely with public affairs officers, Soldiers and Civilians currently serving in a variety of AL&T disciplines. For more information, or to nominate someone, please contact 703-805-1006.