College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Iowa State Aerospace Engineering to lead $1 million NSF Grant

“The United States has a lot of general aviation flying around. From Personal aircrafts, to crop dusters, helicopters, and even UAVs.” – Assistant professor Peng Wei.

Iowa State University aerospace engineering assistant professors Peng Wei and Kristin Yvonne Rozier will lead a $1,000,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, creating a system to manage and monitor low-altitude air traffic.

Around the campus of Iowa State University, the sky can be bustling with helicopters, crop dusters, recreation planes, and personal unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). As technology improves, the sky is likely to get even more crowded. The increased traffic can present problems for pilots as well as people on the ground down below.

“In the United States, low-altitude is pretty busy compared with other countries,” said Peng Wei, an Iowa State assistant professor of aerospace engineering and principal investigator of a National Science Foundation grant. “We need to make sure we have a system to monitor this kind of traffic in both local airspace and also nation-wide so that we can have safe and efficient operations.”

Wei, along with Iowa State assistant professor Kristin Yvonne Rozier, University of Iowa professor Thomas Schnell, University of Michigan professor Ella Atkins, and

Lead investigator, Prof. Wei, will work with a number of other investigators, including Prof. Kristin Y. Rozier

George Hunter, principal data scientist at Mosaic ATM will create a way for the Federal Aviation Administration to maintain safe skies as they get more crowded. The team is specifically concerned with low-altitude, which the FAA defines as below 400 ft. above ground level.

“We will develop a system to monitor and manage and approve operations in low-altitude air traffic,” Wei said. “Our purpose is to give a software prototype to the FAA and also to the public to give the FAA more confidence as they enforce their own regulations and certifications.”

Wei likened the system to the way self-driving cars need structure in order to operate. “With autonomous cars, they can drive around but without traffic lights, stop signs, and intelligent signs on the roadway, they can’t function properly,” Wei said.

Three-step plan

The research team’s system will have three functions for UAV’s to follow. “The first one is called pre-departure flight planning,” Wei explained. “Before take off, we want to make sure the flight plan is safe and not conflicted with other air traffic.”

The second function is monitoring and alert. “After it takes off,” Wei said, “and even though it has followed the flight plan, what if another UAV malfunctions or birds or wind disrupts the flight plan? If everything goes to plan, we won’t require this step, but we need to detect a potential crash beforehand.”

“The final step is called emergency landing,” Wei said. “If the system recognizes a problem in the second step, the third step ensures that the aircraft can land safely or avoid further damage.”

The hope is to never need the second or third step of the system, but a plan will be ready just in case.

$1,000,000 award

The NSF is supporting the study with a three-year, $1,000,000 grant. Iowa State University, the lead institution, will coordinate with the other investigators throughout the process. During the first two years of the research, the team will create the working system and assemble all of the pieces together. In the third year, they will test the system and modify as needed on the campus of the University of Iowa.

Air traffic of the future

“Companies like Amazon and Google are talking about cargo airplanes to deliver medical supplies and other equipment,” Wei said, forecasting the future of air travel. “Uber and Air Bus are discussing autonomous flight or semi-autonomous flight to transport people.”

When you add those ventures on top of personal air travel and UAVs, the future of low-altitude air travel looks very busy. However, with a system in place, that air traffic will be much safer.