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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Researchers to Use Small Unmanned Aerial Systems to Investigate Next Generation National Airspace

Researchers from Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) and departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering have received a $250,000 contract from NASA to investigate using sub-scale unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to help design the next generation of the National Airspace (NAS).

The project, led by Yiannis Papelis, research professor at VMASC, will develop analytical techniques for using experimental results from small unmanned aerial vehicles operating under the guidance of next generation air-traffic control concepts, while also flying consistent with NAS rules but in a sub-scale environment. Identification of techniques for analyzing such experiment results allows researchers to assess novel air traffic management (ATM) concepts that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive to test by using full scale air transport aircraft.

Brett Newman, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and Khan Iftekharuddin, professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering are co-investigators on the project.

"We are very excited about the opportunity to work on this project with NASA, which has a long history of research in ATM," said Papelis. "Traffic in the national airspace is increasing, but no new airports are being built. This means that any increases in capacity have to come from fielding improved traffic management approaches and algorithms, but due to safety and cost concerns associated with testing, such concepts never get implemented. This project provides a unique opportunity to develop viable approaches for testing these concepts."

Simulation is typically used to test air traffic management concepts and to validate the basic premise of an approach before it is adopted. However, because of the complexity associated with ATM concepts, researchers also have to conduct full-scale tests to provide compelling performance evidence before moving to full implementation.

The benefit of simulation is in its low-risk and low-cost approach to testing, with the understanding that some aspects of the physical environment cannot be captured. On the other hand, testing using full-scale aircraft is a very high-cost approach that yields more accurate test results but with numerous safety constraints on testing.

Historically, testing has occurred on either extreme of this axis, leading to reluctance to implement promising concepts because there is no way to provide a gradual transition between simulation-based testing and in-flight testing.

Advances in unmanned aerial system technologies mean that flying platforms are available in wide ranges of sizes and capabilities. This allows researchers to test fixed-wing aircraft with the same on-board sensors and flight management systems as commercial aircraft, but at a fraction of the cost, and basically zero human risk.

"Using actual aerial vehicles in lieu of pure simulation can drastically increase the realism of a test," Papelis said. "Sub-scale vehicles, much like full-size aircraft, are subject to unpredictability that is difficult if not impossible to capture in simulation."

Engineers say taking advantage of sub-scale aerial vehicles for testing ATM concepts helps keep costs and risks lower, while providing more realistic testing.

The proposed project will investigate the factors associated with using sub-scale aerial vehicles to support testing of ATM concepts. This goal is to develop analytical techniques for mapping results obtained in sub-scale experiments to the full-scale environment. This process will allow determination of a scale "sweet-spot," where the benefit is maximized and cost is minimized for a given application.

UAS technologies and their potential across disciplines have led many researchers into the field in the past few years. On Jan. 15, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce held a hearing on UAS, examining the industry in the United States, including the current and potential applications of unmanned aircraft and steps taken to facilitate the development of the industry through the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

In late 2013, Virginia was chosen as one of six UAS test sites nationwide, and ODU was selected as part of a coalition of Virginia universities tasked with supporting that test site.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) chaired a roundtable meeting with government, military and industry leaders at ODU in January of 2014. The event was designed to focus research efforts in the region to support this goal.

That coalition of research universities is pivotal if the Virginia UAS test site is to be selected as a permanent FAA facility, Warner noted at the event.

In September, ODU announced the creation of a research cluster dedicated to UAS, promoting research and developing undergraduate and graduate curricula in unmanned systems, autonomy and robotics, with an objective to extend the impact of ODU's research in these areas. The principal investigators of this project are actively involved in these UAS related efforts both in and outside ODU.