Virginia Tech’s site in the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems makes a lasting impact on a rising industry

The use of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, continues to soar as more and more industries realize the wide range of services they can provide.

At Virginia Tech, research utilizing unmanned aircraft ranges from collecting pollen samples in plant sciences, to inspecting bridges and civil infrastructure, to making short-range humanitarian deliveries. While these small aircraft have proven to be extremely beneficial in places humans cannot easily reach, numerous research challenges related to operating safely and efficiently must be addressed in order to realize their full potential.

The Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems was formed to tackle these research challenges. Virginia Tech is celebrating five years as a member site of the center, which is a multi-university Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) sponsored by the National Science Foundation.   

“We currently have six major research universities with a big footprint in the unmanned aircraft sector collaborating together,” said Craig Woolsey, director of Virginia Tech’s site and professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. “Through the support of our industry and government partners, we are filling the research gap in areas that will make a lasting impact on the unmanned aircraft industry. Our research is geared toward making these small aircraft more perceptive, more agile, safer, and ultimately more capable.”  

Unmanned aircraft systems research at Virginia Tech existed long before the center was established. “What the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems did for Virginia Tech was bring together researchers who wouldn’t normally be working together, resulting in a more meaningful product for the sponsors,” said Kevin Kochersberger, site co-director and associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Through this program, the Virginia Tech community is able to better support research where the interest is directed, encourage collaboration, and have the ability to expand programs that normally would not get such visibility.”

Virginia Tech was invited to join the center as a member site in 2015 by Brigham-Young University and the University of Colorado Boulder, and university sites have since been added at the University of Michigan and Texas A&M, with Penn State preparing to join. The center is the only National Science Foundation-funded unmanned aircraft research center in the country.

In the five years since becoming a member site, the Virginia Tech site has generated more than $2 million of external support for research related to unmanned aircraft. Approximately 75 percent of the site’s funding has come directly from past and present industry and government members, with the remainder provided by the National Science Foundation. By pooling small annual member fees under the NSF’s time-tested I/UCRC model, these funds have supported dozens of graduate and undergraduate researchers who are helping shape a new technology.

The center works with industry partners to develop new algorithms and architectures to advance the unmanned aircraft industry. In turn, these partnerships provide Virginia Tech students with cross-disciplinary training, as they will be the next generation of technical leaders in the field. The knowledge and intellectual property derived from the research helps industry members maintain their competitiveness in the global economy.

“We are extremely grateful to our government and industry partners, both past and present,” said Woolsey. “With their support, we are collectively working to advance autonomous system capabilities, including trustworthy flight control architectures, advanced visual perception strategies, and intelligent human/technology interfaces.”

Through quarterly forums, the government and industry partners have direct oversight of selection and execution of research projects proposed by faculty members. By leveraging their research dollars and investing in the center, the partners in return have access to talent, university facilities, tools and resources, and research results. The I/UCRC model also helps to speed technology transfer to commercial products and services.

The relationships corporate and government partners build with the university also benefit their recruitment efforts, as the students involved in the research master essential theory and technologies that increase their impact as interns and future employees.

“New research ideas are continuing to crop up,” Woolsey said. “Innovations in unmanned aircraft evolve into other concepts, such as urban and rural air mobility and humanitarian uses. Part of the drive behind our research is that there are so many undiscovered needs around the world to get people and packages ‘up and over.’ ”

New challenges and opportunities ahead  

At Virginia Tech, a number of  faculty members throughout the College of Engineering are leading research initiatives with overarching themes related to unmanned aircraft.

  • Woolsey and Kochersberger are teaming to develop intelligent visual tracking methods to enable drones to detect and avoid other small, unmanned aircraft, as well as larger manned aircraft. The team has developed technology that mimics human vision, combining an omnidirectional “peripheral vision” camera with a highly-focused, steerable “central vision” camera along with innovative algorithms to detect potential threats and determine where they’re going. An ongoing effort is focused on discovering individual and cooperative behaviours that improve detection and tracking.
  • Through aerial mapping to document land registration data, unmanned aircraft systems to be useful in infrastructure assessment for disaster risk management. Low-cost drones using open-source code can assess building structural integrity and determine land instabilities where buildings may be more at risk to collapse or susceptible to flood damage. According to Kocherberger, developing nations or low resource communities with limited resources could greatly benefit from the data collected, in creating high-resolution 3D models of their community for planning, and identifying stormwater and land stability issues that may affect infrastructure.  
  • Cameron Patterson, associate professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is developing hardware safety monitors to detect and mitigate malware threats; sensor and network attacks; software bugs; sensor, actuator and communication faults; and inadvertent or malicious operator errors during the operation of a drone. The monitors may override the actuator commands when unsafe states or invalid state transitions are detected. Such methods will assist in making unmanned aircraft more robust, reliable, trustworthy, and cyberattack-resilient.
  • Mazen Farhood, an associate professor of aerospace and ocean engineering, has been working on autonomy test and evaluation, verification, and validation of small unmanned aircraft systems. As the use of unmanned aircraft systems continues to expand and as the autonomy components enabling their operation become ever more sophisticated and interdependent, the certification challenge will grow in complexity. This project concentrated on robust motion planning and control for small, autonomous, fixed-wing aircraft, with a focus on composable reliability assurances.
  • Woolsey is leading a separate National Science Foundation project with former C-UAS researchers Matthew Hebdon and Pratap Tokekar, along with associate professor Joe Gabbard in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, to develop drone technology that can assist in safer and more effective inspection of civil infrastructure, including hard-to-access spaces, such as bridges, tunnels, dams, towers, pipelines, and electrical transmission lines. The use of a drone for this type of assessment has the potential to make the inspection process safer and more efficient, thus enhancing public safety in the U.S. and around the world.

Students benefit from member support

As the unmanned aircraft industry continues to grow, so does student interest. Through funding support from industry and government partners, dozens of undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students at Virginia Tech have been granted opportunities to participate in cutting-edge research in a growing field.  Specifically at the Virginia Tech site, undergraduate students are heavily involved, as the heavy focus on experimental validation allows for participation at all student levels. 

According to Kochersberger, the center’s research not only brings faculty from partner universities together, but the students benefit from these relationships as well. Through quarterly meetings and collaborative projects, undergraduate and graduate students receive visibility with peer graduate programs, learn more about studies happening outside of Virginia Tech, and expand their professional networks. The center also provides a training ground for undergraduate researchers, as they prepare for the transition into graduate studies.

Throughout the past five years, students at all academic levels have been able to participate in research and training in flight control and sensor development; navigation and sense-and-avoid algorithm development; attack detection and mitigation; airframe fabrication; avionics integration; and pilot/observer/safety officer training.

The research also provides students the opportunity to contribute to numerous publications including theses and dissertations, journal papers, and conference papers. Beyond archiving important research outcomes, the publication process builds relevant technical communication skills and supports the development of the future workforce.

Reflecting on the past five years, the faculty at the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems recognizes the unwavering support of  the College of Engineering, departmental leadership, and the Virginia Tech Office of Sponsored Programs, as well as  their flexibility in accommodating a unique model of research sponsorship.

 “As academic researchers, we are really fortunate to meet every three months with some of the most forward-thinking unmanned aircraft systems experts in American industry and government,” Woolsey said of his experience thus far with the center. “We are so proud to be working together to shape UAS technology as its value to society continues to grow.”

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