Optimal control engineer joins AerE

Trajectory optimization, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) path planning, and automotive accident reconstruction are just a few interests new aerospace engineering faculty member Ran Dai plans to expand upon as she makes her start at Iowa State.

Dai, a native of China’s Jiangsu Province, began her undergraduate studies at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, receiving her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and automation science in 2002. After working as a technical engineer at Huayuan Tianyi High Technology Corp. in Bejiing for about a year, she decided to continue her education in the U.S. She enrolled at Auburn University in Alabama, where she completed her master’s in 2005 and PhD in 2007, both in aerospace engineering.

Eager to apply her knowledge, Dai began working at Dynamic Research, Inc. in California. She was assigned to a Department of Transportation-sponsored project investigating the different factors involved in the high number of automotive accidents that occur daily in the nation.

By gathering accident reports and incorporating elements such as tire marks and vehicle and driver information, Dai and her team developed an automatic accident reconstruction software, which can be applied to analyze the cause of past accidents, as well as to prevent the same accidents from happening again in the future.

Dai then became a research associate at the University of Washington. Working in conjunction with Boeing, she has been helping make the Boeing 787 Dreamliner an even more environmentally friendly aircraft.

The 787 is one of the most power-efficient planes in flight today, using efficient composite materials to save about 20 percent of fuel and power. Dai is taking that efficiency to the next level by developing an autonomous controller that coordinates power generation and consumption in a way that minimizes costs and efficiently allocates all power-related operations.

Dai, continuing her research in power efficiency at Iowa State, will apply her expertise in optimization technology to power saving of ground and aerial vehicles. She also plans to create an autonomous control research lab in the future, implementing indoor GPS tracking instruments, like Vicon technology.

“Vicon has a high speed camera that can capture the motion of moving targets like robots or small UAVs, and locate the position of their motions with GPS,” Dai says. “I’d like to apply this technology and my past experience to different scenarios to coordinate robot or UAV tasks in a safe and efficient way.”

Confident academia is the right path for her, Dai is excited to be at Iowa State. She will begin with teaching AER E 355: Aircraft Flight Dynamics and Control while establishing her research program.

“I have a passion for research, but I also enjoy teaching,” she says. “I really want my technology to benefit society and the community, and I want my past experiences and skills to help students learn more efficiently.”