SEAS professor receives grant from NASA to develop safety system for pilotless planes

Media Credit: Skylar Epstein | Staff Photographer

Assistant professor Peng Wei said GW's portion of the NASA grant will cover expenses for tools like unmanned aerial vehicles and weather sensors.

An engineering professor received a $2.5 million grant from NASA to develop the first-ever safety system for small self-flying airplanes last month.

Peng Wei, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, received the three-year NASA System-Wide Safety grant to develop a safety system for air mobility vehicles – small pilotless passenger airplanes that people will be able to use as an “air taxi” for transportation in the sky. Wei said he is creating a system that will make urban air mobility, the use of autonomous planes in the sky, safe and effective at alleviating traffic congestion on the ground in cities.

“The first part is basically we will build a system and the second part is the application or the problem, which is how do we ensure all those advanced air mobility airplanes or new airplanes safely fly in an urban environment,” he said.

Wei said he will work with a team of 13 researchers from Vanderbilt University, the University of Texas-Austin and MIT’s Lincoln Lab who will study weather airspace safety risks and use statistical methods to judge changes to the system’s performance over time. He said they will work with NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, which focuses on developing more innovative and safer aviation technology.

Wei said the system he’s developing will support planes that are electrically powered, pilotless and much smaller than traditional airplanes, which, like an Uber, can carry passengers from one location in the city to another. He said these characteristics make the planes much more susceptible to dangers, like adverse weather and battery degradation, than traditional airline industry planes.

“Because they are not as heavy and not as powerful as our traditional airplanes, they are very vulnerable to adverse weather, so that’s why we want to focus on the first hazard, which is adverse weather,” Wei said. “And number two, because these vehicles are powered by electricity and not traditionally gas-powered, that’s why we are focused on the electrical components’ faults or degradation like battery degradation or propeller faults.”

Wei said he hopes the safety system can mitigate an operational risk in which the autonomous planes could become “non-cooperative” and invade other planes’ corridors – the “highway lanes” in the sky.

Wei said GW’s share of the NASA grant will fund expenses for equipment like small unmanned aerial vehicles, weather sensors that could help avoid aircraft collisions, tuition and monthly stipend costs for his team of three doctoral students and a month of his summer salary. He said his team and the other researchers plan to integrate the pieces of the system that they build with the pieces from NASA to complete the first model of this safety system in about two and a half years.

He said the project will help establish GW’s name in the aviation safety industry and the innovation of Artificial Intelligence machine learning autonomy technologies. He said being stationed in the District can enhance new technology development because lawmakers in Congress and regulators with agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration can recognize the value of these new technologies and eventually implement them.

“We are in the right location, right time and are working with the right teams in developing AI machine learning autonomy, so we are very excited to be working on this project,” he said.

Experts in engineering said this research on the safety of advanced air mobility vehicles in urban environments can contribute to the evolution of safe and innovative future air technologies.

Gautam Biswas, a professor of computer science and computer engineering at Vanderbilt University who serves on the research team, said researchers will use a simulation that can model urban landscapes and a simulation of an unmanned aerial vehicle drone to test the vehicle’s safety system’s software. He said the team will need to transition their virtual work to the physical parts of the safety system carefully because not all components of the physical system will work the same virtually.

Biswas said creating a safety system for advanced air mobility vehicles can help to alleviate traffic congestion on the ground to make cities less congested. Americans lose an average of 99 hours a year to traffic, according to the U.S. News and World Report.

“Why it would be very useful to have these unmanned aerial vehicles is getting people around you to significantly reduce the congestion in cities, and that has many advantages as you’re saving time because these are all electric,” Biswas said.

Daniel DeLaurentis, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics in engineering at Purdue University, said Wei’s research is “extremely important and beneficial” because it will guide the safe implementation of pilotless passenger planes. He said the team will have to rely heavily on simulation and assumptions that might fail as the first group to design this kind of safety aviation system for autonomous planes.

“No one has a crystal ball, so some of the assumptions may not be accurate, and that is a real challenge,” he said.

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