ASU team to improve next-generation air traffic control with $10M from NASA

May 25, 2017

Arizona State University is set to play a role in improving safe and efficient air travel across the country’s blue — perhaps bluest in Arizona — sky.

ASU is among five university research teams that were funded by NASA’s Aeronautics University Leadership Initiative to explore a novel idea to improve aviation. A five-year project, led by Yongming Liu, focuses on safely integrating the complex data sources that are driving the future of air traffic management systems. Graphic created by Pete Zrioka and Rose Serago/ASU Download Full Image

The award-winning, five-year project, totaling $10 million in total funding, focuses on safely integrating the complex data sources that are driving the future of air traffic management systems.

ASU’s Yongming Liu, the lead project investigator, is directing a diverse, multi-disciplinary team that includes several faculty in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, as well as collaborators from Vanderbilt University, Southwest Research Institute and Optimal Synthesis Inc. Liu is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the Fulton Schools’ School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy.

NASA expects the awards to “spur the nation’s leading universities to take a larger leadership role in advancing the revolutionary ideas needed to transform aviation and further advance U.S. global leadership in the aviation community,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics, in a press release.

Managing the interplay of data sources

ASU’s project surrounds what Liu refers to as the next-generation National Airspace System, known as NextGen NAS.

The National Airspace System covers the airspace, navigation facilities and airports of the United States along with its associated information, regulations, policies, personnel and equipment.

“NAS is in the process of undergoing a change from radar-based technology to surveillance systems-based operations within the next 10 years,” Liu said.

This is due to a multitude of new and existing aviation data sources becoming available, such as the use of voice and data communications, live weather forecasting, aircraft health data and GPS technology.

The availability of new technology and data sources promise the possibility of reducing aviation gridlock in the sky and at airports, cutting weather-related delays, and enabling air traffic controllers and pilots to see the same real-time display of air traffic for the first time.

Additionally, modernizing the nation's complex air transportation system boasts more efficient fuel usage by airlines, reduced aircraft emissions and increased access to airports by the general aviation community.

However, Liu and his collaborators foresee a problem with the integration of the enormous amount of information associated with the move toward NextGen NAS.

“The myriad of information offered by various data sources requires appropriate representation and proper fusion methodologies,” Liu said. “A critical issue surrounds the huge uncertainties arising from a variety of information sources such as aeronautical instrumentation, environment, intrinsic variabilities and human factors.”

Liu said, “Prognostics for the NAS must consider the uncertainties inherent in the system.”

“Managing the interplay of these data sources requires complex system modeling to ensure a safe transition to NextGen NAS operations,” said Liu, describing the drive behind his team’s proposal. “We are talking about a super complex human-cyber-physical system that has never been fully explored in the past.”

To this end, the team is addressing the urgent need to develop a system-wide prognostics framework — a way to successfully fuse a lot of information — for the proactive health management of the nation’s evolving airspace system.

In part, their contributions will allow the aviation community to simulate, test and interrogate possible failure modes within the data sources.

If successful, the proposed research will significantly advance the existing knowledge-base for the safety of the future national air traffic service operations — enhancing the system resiliency and safety of the future of air travel in the country.

Photo of Yongming Liu and Fraaz Tahir working in a lab with a caption of "Professor Yongming Liu (right) pictured with Fraaz Tahir, a mechanical engineering doctoral student. Liu is leading a $10 million project funded by NASA to make next-generation avia

Professor Yongming Liu (right) pictured with Fraaz Tahir, a mechanical engineering doctoral student. Liu is leading a $10 million project funded by NASA to make next-generation aviation safer and more efficient. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU

Crafting a diverse team

In addition to tackling a compelling technical challenge, another goal of NASA’s University Leadership Initiative is to support university researchers who lead diverse, multi-disciplinary teams.

ASU faculty working on the project include Aditi Chattopadhyay, Nancy Cooke, Pingbo Tang, Lei Ying, Jingrui He and Mary Niemcyzk — who represent five of the six Fulton Schools.

This faculty mix, along with additional collaborators from Vanderbilt, is integral to the proposed project, which Liu said “requires a very diverse team” ranging from structural engineers to big data analysts, and from image processors to psychologists, and from computer scientists to applied statisticians.

“We also seek for a smooth transition from academic research to field applications,” said Liu, explaining the importance of various disciplines as well as the involvement of the research institute, Southwest Research Institute, and private company, Optimal Synthesis Inc.

“The team is incredibly well-positioned to advance the state-of-the-art,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Squires said that the team’s success in winning this award “highlights a key strength of the Fulton Schools: the ability of our faculty to assemble into strong multi-disciplinary teams that award sponsors recognize as providing the novel, differentiated expertise crucial to addressing their challenges.”

In addition to the ASU-led team, additional University Leadership Initiative award recipients — selected from among 83 initial proposals and 20 final proposals — included the University of South Carolina, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Ohio State University.

“We’re excited our team was successful in convincing NASA that a multi-disciplinary information fusion is valuable to the future of their missions and in ensuring aviation safety,” Liu said.

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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ASU-designed C-Turtle robot teaches itself to get around

ASU team will present C-Turtle papers at MIT, Stanford this summer.
ASU-designed C-Turtle robot can navigate different terrains, built to be cheap.
May 25, 2017

Technology comes from collaboration between computer science, mechanical engineering and biology

It looks like the beginning of a Star Wars movie: a lone robot pushing itself across the sand with a pair of orange flippers toward lumpy red buttes in the distance.

Look closer at it. The leading edge is curved upward like a turtle’s bottom shell, so it doesn’t dig into the ground. The flippers are curved, also like a turtle’s.

The robot looks like a turtle because that was the intent of a pair of Arizona State University roboticists and a band of doctoral students.

It’s called C-Turtle. Designed with inspiration from biology — one of the team members is earning a doctorate in evolutionary biology — it learns how to navigate different types of terrain.

C-Turtle was an exercise in developmental robotics, where you build robots to test hypotheses. The team will present two papers about C-Turtle this summer at MIT and Stanford. One paper will compare the design with its biological inspirations. The other will describe the robot’s algorithmic learning process in the lab and in the desert.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now 

The robot was a collaboration between different backgrounds: computer science, mechanical engineering and biology.

“From my point of view, it’s a fascinating approach,” said Heni Ben Amor, an assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering.

Ben Amor collaborated with Daniel Aukes, an assistant professor in engineering at the Polytechnic School. Ben Amor’s background is in artificial intelligence. Aukes’ is in designing, fabricating and building robots.

Ben Amor’s team worked on machine learning; Aukes’ team worked on the manufacturing aspect.

“I’m really pleased my students were able to pair a really simple mechanism like this robot to the higher aspects of computer sciences that Heni is working on,” Aukes said.

C-Turtle took one hour of learning to walk in the sand in an earlier desert test. It’s made for sandy environments. “It finds that on its own,” team member Andrew Janssen said. “We don’t tell it what to do.”

“If we use tricks from nature, it learns much faster,” Ben Amor said. “You can use that initial inspiration from nature to get things going.”

Janssen, a doctoral candidate in evolutionary biology, helped design the robot. He traced the profile of a sea-turtle flipper.

“It turns out the ones shaped like that work better than just a square paddle,” Janssen said. “We tested things that are impossible in nature. They didn’t work.”

C-Turtle has to dig hard to propel itself across the sand, but not so hard it digs holes. Nature-inspired, the design succeeds.

Sea turtles are “gigantic animals and they move across sand pretty easily,” Janssen said.

Biology short-cuts problems in robotics, including design, Aukes said. He has worked with a biologist at Harvard, using laminate fabrication to imitate insect wings.

“This synergy between biologist and robotics designers goes back a ways,” he said.

Another unusual aspect of C-Turtle is that it’s fabricated out of thin cardboard. They’re designed to be cheap and disposable. Each robot cost about $70. The motors cost about $5 and the chips about $10. Joseph Campbell, a Ph.D. student in the Interactive Robotics Laboratory, was one of the designers.

Three-dimensional printers are making robotics easier. Parts don’t have to be laboriously machined. Aukes teaches a foldable-robotics class.

Team member Kevin Luck, a computer science doctoral candidate, envisions a stack of paper and a laser cutter being shipped to Mars someday and a fleet of bots self-assembling.

“At the end of the day, you would have a working robot,” Luck said.

Potentially, a pack of them could roam around on Earth, monitoring certain types of conditions or performing tasks like searching minefields.

“How do you have a lot of these little robots collaborate and learn from each other?” Aukes said. “I’m excited that we can use this to work on the complex dynamics between robots.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now