Research Challenges & How to Get Involved!

NASA Final Prioritized List of Research Challenges IDd

The path forward for Unmanned Aircraft is becoming clearer by the day and government outreach to industry is helping to bring more and more institutions into the fold. Still, it can be difficult to discover which challenges for academia and commercial industry still exist and how to become involved in a process that is advancing at a quickening pace. New problems arise everyday, while new solutions to old problems come just as quickly. Navigating these waters can be difficult. Today’s article is about helping readers understand which challenges exist, the importance of those challenges, and who might be leading the efforts or coordinating research such that anyone with the means and passion can become involved in a productive way. .

We’ll start with a chart shown at AUVSI by Jay Shivley from NASA-Ames Research Center – a Human Systems Integration Engineer presenting “Putting Manned in Manned.” His presentation is a fascinating one and I may go into more depth on it in the future, however for today’s purposes we’ll be focusing on this chart shown below.

It is blurry when embedded, but clicking the pictures will make it clear!

research challengesIt is clear that though 8 challenges are shown in this chart, there are various sub-challenges that must be overcome to accomplish the goal of full integration. Many of these will require decades of continued technological development and regulatory implementation and in fact they may never become finally “figured out.” That could mean decades of paid grants, scholarly program funding! In systems safety, we like to say that safety is never 100% – we can always continue to develop our practices, train our employees, identify possible hazards, and alleviate the risks associated with those hazards. However, this early in commercialization of UAS, we can begin to incorporate a theoretical, more academic approach to business, and thus improve the manner by which these challenges are addressed. For each challenge I will list some programs that you may not expect for technology to be interested – perhaps leading to new students and researchers developing projects.

Challenges Broken Down

High Priority

1. Effective Human-Automation Interaction: Human Factors and controlling the human element in UAS operations is a huge problem. Any research being done into the systems reliability will need to incorporate an element of human interaction reliability as well as systems engineering for mechanical, software, communications etc. Human-Automation requires the understanding of biological and social impedance upon Situational Awareness, Vigilance Decrements, Skill Degredation and much more. Within this context, there is a great opportunity for universities to operate in research from sociology, engineering, kinesiology, safety, biology, and  psychology.

2. Pilot Centric Ground Control Station Design: Again, human factors concerns are described in detail as being a significant challenge to UAS in the National Air Space. Among these concerns with highest priority for moving forward, are establishing still what the minimum equipment list will be, identifying and reconciling the differences (delta) between manned and unmanned aviation, identifying sensory deficits, addressing communication latency problems, developing correct and controlled hand-offs between on the ground and “in the cockpit” pilots, and producing guidelines or requirements for control conditions. These concerns are instrumental for producing an environment for the pilots that trends toward reliable, reproduce able, safe and secure flights. Will a GCS need to have locked doors to prevent hostile take-over? Will  they have a maximum occupancy to remove distractions? Will a pilot-in-control be in charge, able to remove anyone from the environment as they do on a plane? These questions all must be answered, and relevant data be used to back-up those answers. Clearly, there is a great opportunity to become involved in this research and NASA is asking for input. Decades of crashes have increased equipment lists, required checklist operations have been added, and standard practices developed all directly related to accidents that could have been avoided if these remedies had been in place before. We hope to avoid these in the future, and to do so, sociologists, environmental specialists, psychologists, medical doctors, physical therapists, psychologists, engineers, political scientists, mathematicians, pilots,  and maintainers must all be a part.

3. Display of Traffic/Airspace Information:

The last of the “High Priority” challenges is somewhat more technical and applicable for those who garner knowledge of aviation and aerospace more specifically. Traffic information, right of way methodologies, sense and avoid technologies, trajectory based operations, dynamic planning, and airspace categorizations and information are what the regulatory agencies such as ASTM, RTCA, EUROCAE, NASA, and the FAA are all working on feverishly to develop the models and safety objectives used to guide the next phase of testing and integration efforts. Generally these regulatory agencies are always open to members of the Aerospace and Aviation Community and participation, especially from academia is greatly welcomed. This is also how I got involved – as an expert in not a technical but public policy field – so regulatory and legislative efforts could be impacted by political science, humanities, marketing, business, and law enforcement focused students here.

Medium priority

Less interesting for me are the Medium and Low priority challenges, not because they are less important, but because they are not my focus. Systems Level Issues will be the forefront for years to come as the more technical roles and responsibilities are delegated and solved. Predictability and Contingency Management – especially as they pertain to NextGen – will continue to develop alongside manned aviation and may in-fact see great benefit from parallel decision making processes.

Pages from AUVSI_HSI

Low Priority

1. Airspace Users and Providers of Qualifications and Training  and Support for Future/Enhanced Capability:

Of courses this is where education and universities have traditionally found a stable and long-term role beyond research. Institutions such as Cransfield University in the UK, Embry Riddle Aviation, and University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety & Security Program have led the world in Safety & Security training for manned aviation and now moving into the unmanned world of aviation. Newer institutions for the fields of aviation are creating niches for themselves and becoming tied to State efforts for UAS Test Centers – to be decided sometimes in November of this year. Places like University of North Dakota, New Mexico State University, Kansas State University, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Nevada State are all vying to become world leaders in unmanned aviation, alongside of course MIT, Cal Tech, and more traditionally technically focused schools

A Call for Help!

What I’m really getting at is that this effort to bring unmanned aviation into the national airspace can only take place quickly, successfully, safely, and securely if academia, industry, federal government, and local government work together to solve the problems identified and unidentified already. This project is a big one – it was too big to solve all at once as was the goal of RTCA Special Committee 203, which led to the more focused, well-tailored Special Committee 228. If we are to continue to lead the world of aviation in safety, in business, in development, and in support academia must step-up and get involved. That begins with students tailoring projects to UAS needs, it continues with teachers supporting students proposals and answering government RFPs, and it ends with entrenched institutions advancing that research in public-private partnerships for the betterment of society overall.

This is a wonderful time to be a part of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems world, but it is up to you to take advantage of it!


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