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Winged wonders

This video, produced by Jesse Meria and Marcin Szczepanski, comes from a series called MConnex, which showcases new developments in the College of Engineering. This piece features Ella Atkins, an associate professor of aerospace engineering, who develops intelligent systems for unmanned aircraft.

“Some of the things I’ve worked on include building autonomous, unusual, unmanned aircraft, such as a collaborative project with some of the other professors to build an unmanned seaplane called ‘flying fish,'” says Ella Atkins, associate professor of aerospace engineering. “It ended up being the first fully autonomous seaplane ever built where it not only could fly planned trajectories, but also could decide when it took off and where it landed.

“My particular area of focus is on autonomous systems, looking at how I can either make the system behave in a more intelligent way or have it handle anomalies, which is a big issue in aerospace right now.

“So, let’s say your engine fails. One of the things I studied was the U.S. Airways flight that was hit by geese in the New York area. That plane had the automation and the capability, given today’s technology, to select a landing site and immediately return to LaGuardia.

“It turns out that would have been the best thing.

“But the pilot did not have the ability to make those kinds of mathematical computations in that short time frame, even though the computations were relatively simple.

“Computers, on the other hand, can do math really fast.

“So if [the computer] understands the nature of the problem, it can solve the problem in less than a second. Whereas the pilots really have to spend a while just trying to understand what the problem is.

“At the University, we’re really looking at ways to improve the technology through research. So here we’re doing a variety of things.

“This is a platform that has been developed to allow testing of flapping-wing vehicles in a wind-tunnel vacuum and a still-air environment. We are looking to better understand the aerodynamic forces and our ability to sense them on a small-scale platform.

“The sensors on this include a load cell, which is capable of measuring all the forces and torques acting on the system; there are pressure ports embedded into the wings that allow us to measure in real time the pressure distribution over the top and bottom surfaces as this flaps at different frequencies and under different atmospheric conditions.

“Ultimately this will allow us to validate the computational models of flapping-wing platforms, which are not well understood. This allows us to actually develop real-time estimates of lift and drag that are not just based on the models that you have before you fly.

“Right now I think the public sees unmanned aircraft as tools of the Department of Defense. Any time you can send a camera or another sensor into a hostile environment in place of a human, that’s a win situation because the human isn’t put at risk, even if we lose the unmanned aircraft.

“Law enforcement has a number of applications, i.e., having the officers aware of what’s going on in a hostile urban environment, in a disaster situation. So, for example, if you have a fire in a high-rise building and you don’t really know what’s blocked in terms of the stairwells, one of these can fly up the stairwell as long as it knows where it’s going with its own sensors.

“Suddenly you don’t have to have the firefighter crews expose themselves to that risk.”

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