WPI, Aurora Developing Algorithms to Assist UAV Pilots with Decision-Making

A professor at Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has received an 18-month, $185,000 grant from the U.S. Air Force for research exploring how unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be operated safely, reliably and intelligently even when they experience mechanical problems or encounter other unexpected situations.

According to the university, the research can be applied in UAVs for both military and civilian applications.

Raghvendra V. Cowlagi, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering, received the grant in collaboration with Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., a provider of optionally piloted and unmanned aircraft.

Cowlagi and his research team are developing algorithms to run on a UAV’s onboard computer to allow the aircraft to perform high-level missions with minimal human supervision or remote piloting, as well as enable it to tolerate severe degradation to the airframe and engines. The algorithms will also help remote pilots parse the vast amount of information transmitted by UAVs to gain a better understanding of the vehicle’s condition.

Cowlagi says the remote pilot will still be the supervisor, but the algorithms will take much of the burden of real-time decision-making off of pilots.

“A lot of the decision-making that might have gone on in a pilot’s head will now go onboard the UAV, and we think this will lead to safer operation of UAVs in the future,” he explains.

In building the algorithms, the team is using a method based on linear temporal logic specifications, which allow the human supervisor to command the UAV and impose safety behaviors on it.

The challenge, which is being addressed by Cowlagi’s research, is to design algorithms that can ensure the UAV diligently follows these commands from the human supervisors while accounting for health degradations in the airframe structure and/or engines.

“This research has never been used before in the context of unmanned aerial vehicles,” Cowlagi notes. “We are the first group to try this and to try to apply this method in the hopes of making UAVs safe and reliable.”

This grant builds on previous U.S. Air Force-funded research Cowlagi has conducted in collaboration with Aurora. In particular, the feasibility of the current research was demonstrated in early 2015 through preliminary results obtained by Cowlagi and his team, says WPI.

“The collaboration between Aurora and WPI is producing exciting results, proving that self-aware and self-reacting UAVs are obtainable in the not-too-distant future,” adds Jeffrey Chambers, composite structures research engineer and project lead at Aurora.


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