OSU's unmanned aircraft vehicle program flying to greater heights
Story by Jeff Joiner
Professor Jamey Jacob walks into his classroom and begins talking to the room of Oklahoma State University mechanical and aerospace engineering students. Jacob, a member of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering faculty in the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology, checks on the students’ progress with a project. Student teams are testing unmanned aerial vehicles to “deliver” a small package, or payload in industry jargon, and drop it on a target in a flight test.
“We haven’t specified what kind of delivery,” Jacob says. “It could be medical supplies or emergency equipment or tacos.”
Though they’re not delivering tacos yet, UAVs have become almost common. Relatively affordable radio-controlled aircraft are used to shoot spectacular videos of everything from migrating whales to natural disasters to extreme athletes risking all for YouTube. Yet the real UAV revolution underway is not on YouTube but in research labs and classrooms like those at OSU.
What began as an aircraft design class at OSU 20 years ago has grown into a multidisciplinary program focusing on building, testing and researching technologically advanced UAVs for a variety of uses including emergency preparedness, weather research, environmental monitoring, precision agriculture, border security and military operations. Jacob’s class is an example of the hands-on training that makes OSU’s aerospace program so strong and unique.
For decades, long before there was a focus on unmanned aerial systems, OSU MAE students designed projects on paper. Andy Arena, considered by many as the founder of OSU’s unmanned aircraft program, joined the MAE faculty in 1993 to teach the capstone aircraft design class for seniors. Arena knew traditional design was important, but he wanted this class to have a different experience.
“If a student is going to appreciate design, they really have to build something,” Arena says. “You don’t see problems on paper because everything works on paper. They need to understand the consequences of their decisions and crash things.”
In 1995, Arena introduced building and flying small remote-controlled airplanes to test student design concepts. He also introduced competition, dividing the class into the Orange and Black teams to compete in flight tests.
“I like to say we were into drones before drones were cool,” says Arena, OSU’s T.J. Cunningham Chair in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
In 1998, the design class entered the largest university aircraft “design, build and fly” competition in the world organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. For over a decade, Orange and Black teams competed against each other and teams from around the nation and the world, winning more awards than any other program. OSU teams crashed at times — and could rebuild planes on the spot to continue to compete, all helping to establish the university’s reputation for building the best small-unmanned aircraft in the country.
In 2010, Arena decided his students had outgrown the AIAA competition and launched Speedfest at OSU, a contest so challenging that students couldn’t hope to compete without state-of-the-art materials and advanced design and analysis. In 2016, Speedfest will introduce turbojet engines, which Arena says will be the first collegiate UAV competition to feature turbojet propulsion.
In the early 2000s, interest in unmanned aircraft grew with the military’s use of UAVs in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Images of military drones (a term MAE faculty try to avoid) became common on news programs and the notion of remotely-controlled, unmanned airplanes entered the public’s consciousness. As awareness grew and inexpensive UAVs became popular, interest in commercial UAV applications created research opportunities at universities with strengths in the budding field, including OSU.
OSU began improving its testing and research facilities, including building the Unmanned Aircraft Flight Station in 2010, the first university airfield dedicated to UAV testing. To feed the growing demand for UAS engineers, OSU introduced another first in 2011 — master’s degree and doctorate options in UAS, allowing graduate students to focus on research.
Alyssa Avery has spent her entire academic career at OSU, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering. Now she has started work on her doctorate degree. Avery says her love of airplanes, fueled by both parents who are aerospace engineers, motivated her.
"Airplanes have always been my true love,” the Edmond native says. “I had a poster of an SR-71 (a Cold War supersonic spy jet) on my wall when I was 5.”
Avery says working with UAVs has allowed her to learn each piece of an aircraft’s system and do hands-on work with aircraft design, fabrication and testing. As a senior in 2013, she was the structures group leader for Team Black, responsible for structural analysis and fabricating a plane to compete in Speedfest. That aircraft reached speeds of 220 mph, winning the competition.
“There’s something really cool about actually getting in there and doing the composite work and using your hands to actually create the physical aircraft,” Avery says. “I love mathematics and always wanted to do something with it and engineering allows me to use math to build things.”
OSU conducts both military and commercial research, with projects pushing the envelope of UAV capabilities. One of the most important research areas is autonomous operation, a relatively young field that brought Girish Chowdhary to OSU in 2013. Chowdhary, an MAE assistant professor, studies unmanned systems that complete missions independently from human intervention. That requires aircraft to “learn” by recognizing changes in its environment and reacting.
“I like to say we put the brains in the planes,” Chowdhary says.
He calls autonomous control the Achilles’ heel of UAV systems. In order to operate UAVs beyond the line of sight, aircraft must have enhanced situational awareness and the ability to autonomously make decisions. In other words, UAVs must learn how to take care of themselves. This year, Chowdhary received a grant from the Air Force to develop programming for adaptive learning and decision-making by unmanned aircraft in conflict zones.
“Currently, all those decisions are made on the ground by the operator,” he says. “What you want is autonomous aircraft that are told what the mission is and why it should be done, but not how to do the mission. The aircraft figures that out on its own.”
Allan Axelrod, a doctoral student working in Chowdhary’s Distributed Autonomous Systems Laboratory, is studying how machines learn.
“This includes any UAS that operates autonomously, so we’re looking at how it performs such that it optimizes what it learns in a changing environment,” he says.
One of Axelrod’s projects is UAVs equipped with sensors to survey carbon dioxide and methane levels in the Anadarko Basin in Texas. The project is part of a Department of Energy plan to capture and store carbon underground. In the future, UAVs could be used to monitor storage sites for leaking gas, but scientists must first know the background levels of CO2 and CH4 and are using unmanned aircraft to survey the region.
OSU graduate Ben Loh developed a spherical unmanned aerial vehicle called ATLAS™ or All Terrain Land and Air Sphere system for his doctoral dissertation. The UAV is designed to fly, hover, roll on the ground and take to the air again, making it ideal for search and rescue efforts by emergency responders in disasters, especially inside buildings. ATLAS™ is also being recommended for facility inspection and security work by the military and private companies, including those in the energy sector. Loh has teamed up with faculty and business partners to launch a startup company, Unmanned Cowboys LLC, to market the technology.
One of the most promising areas of research is in meteorology and weather forecasting, where using small, unmanned aircraft could improve the accuracy and speed of forecasts. OSU and the universities of Oklahoma, Kentucky and Nebraska will collaborate on a $6 million National Science Foundation grant to develop unmanned systems to collect atmospheric data. The grant is the largest to-date awarded to an UAS project at OSU.
“In the not-too-distant future, UAVs will be ubiquitous across all scientific fields with a weather component,” says Jacob, the study’s principal investigator.
Other research areas include the study of aircraft sound or aeroacoustics led by MAE adjunct associate professor Richard Gaeta. The Department of Defense, among others, is interested in making UAVs quieter and less detectable. The Department of Homeland Security has awarded several projects to OSU, including selecting OSU’s University Multispectral Laboratories facilities to test unmanned aircraft for use by emergency responders and the DHS. The university also won a student competition, sponsored by DHS, to develop a prototype aircraft system for border surveillance.
At the heart of OSU’s program is teaching and research that prepares students for aerospace careers. A tradition of hands-on training in aircraft design, fabrication and testing is combined with students taking leadership roles in world-class research projects to give OSU graduates an advantage in the marketplace for skilled engineers.
“Our students are literally ready to go right in and work for these companies because they have experience that a lot of schools don’t offer,” Arena says. “You really need to get your hands on things to be a complete engineer, and that’s the culture here.”
According to Jacob, the program’s success laid the groundwork for the December 4th announcement that OSU is establishing the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Institute that he will lead. Such a center will recognize the multidisciplinary nature of the field, which reaches beyond mechanical and aerospace engineering into other university programs such as fire services training, geography, computer sciences, chemical engineering, aviation education and biosystems and ag engineering.
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