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Federal Aviation Administration Taps Drexel to Join Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Team

uas testing

Using neuroimaging technology, Drexel researchers are discovering the cognitive challenges faced by air traffic controllers who manage volumes of data over long periods of time.

Even if you haven’t had a packaged dropped off via Amazon Prime Air or watched some amazing aerial video footage from a drone-cam, chances are you’ve seen one of those zippy, remote-controlled fliers categorized as “unmanned aircraft systems.” Their growing prevalence in the skies, along with an industry push to fly them higher and farther, is forcing the Federal Aviation Administration to expand its regulatory purview. As a way of addressing technical issues critical to safe and successful integration of unmanned aircrafts into the nation’s airspace, the FAA announced the establishment of a National Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Drexel University is one of several core research institutions that will be part of the Center, led by Mississippi State University, alongside dozens of associate research, commercial and government partners.

Researchers from Drexel University’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science, and Health Systems and College of Computing & Informatics are among the group of experts selected to advise the FAA on rules for the commercial operation of unmanned aerial vehicles. Drexel’s contributions to the Center will focus on the challenges faced by air traffic controllers, pilots and operators of unmanned aircraft systems—categorized as “human factors” by the Center.

As part of the five-year FAA-funded research, Drexel’s team will collaborate with both other member academic institutions of the MSU-led Alliance for System Safety of UAS Through Research Excellence (ASSURE) and key industry partners and government agencies. ASSURE, which will serve as the National Center for Excellence, will bring these experts together to address the most pressing concerns when it comes to regulating the operation of unmanned aircraft systems in national airspace. 

“This world-class, public-private partnership will help us focus on the challenges and opportunities of this cutting-edge technology,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We expect this team will help us to educate and train a cadre of unmanned aircraft professionals well into the future.”

Congress has charged the FAA with developing rules regulating commercial unmanned aerial vehicles and the new center will play a key role in that process. The center of excellence will provide the agency and industry with research to maximize the potential of commercial unmanned systems with minimal changes to the current system regulating manned aircraft.

“This team has the capabilities and resources to quickly get up and running to help the FAA address the demands of this challenging technology over the next decade,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

Drexel’s human-factor research will help the FAA make recommendations for airspace designation, training, information flow coordination and communication, traffic flow and systems performance requirements. This data will also contribute to the Center’s broader goal of advising the FAA on solutions to existing and anticipated challenges surrounding air traffic control, airport ground operations, control and communication, low altitude operations, noise reduction, crew training, traffic management and system security.

“Being included in this national center helps ensure Drexel’s participation in the fastest growing sector of the aerospace industry,” said Kurtulus Izzetoglu, PhD, a research associate professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, and a leader of Drexel’s team. “This establishes our university as part of a pipeline for industry to partner with research institutions.”

ATC screen

Drexel biomedical engineers are currently working on testing and training tools for unmanned aerial vehicle ground controllers that monitor brain activity as a way of determining their mastery of various skills. They have also used brain-monitoring technology to understand the effects of task overload and cognitive workload on air traffic controllers. Much of this research has been conducted in partnership with the FAA’s testing facilities at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

“Drexel has a deep bench in human factors and human-centered computing research with over 20 faculty in this area of research,” said Patrice Tremoulet, PhD, an associate research professor in the College of Computing & Informatics and science director of Drexel’s Applied Informatics group, who is also one of Drexel’s team leaders for the collaboration. “Most of the faculty members have worked on designing and improving UAS user interfaces and our work at Hughes Technical Center is supporting several human-in-the-loop studies.”

The use of unmanned air systems in non-conflict situations is growing with applications well-suited for natural disaster response, humanitarian relief efforts, environmental impact assessment and precision agriculture, according to David Shaw, MSU's chief research officer.

“This has been a six-year effort for Mississippi State and three years for our partner universities. We picked our team because they know unmanned systems and they know the FAA. That will make it easier to turn UAS research into FAA rules quickly,” said USAF Maj. Gen. (Ret.) James Poss, the executive director of the ASSURE-FAA National Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems team at Mississippi State.

The FAA’s top priority is maintaining a safe airspace, and the challenge of creating policy to expand the use of unmanned aerial systems is that there is little test data. Current regulations limit their operation altitude to 400 feet. Larger unmanned vehicles that would be used to monitor agriculture or assess environmental issues, for example, would be flying at a higher altitude and in commercial air space. This means that air traffic controllers and pilots would need to keep track of many more vehicles in the sky.

“The only way to imagine how this would look and what sorts of problems it might pose is to run advanced simulations and gather data,” said Patrick Craven, PhD, an assistant professor in the College of Computing & Informatics who is also a team leader for Drexel’s group. “While this sort of modeling is one of the many research strengths that the College of Computing & Informatics brings to the partnership, it’s just a small piece of what this Center of Excellence will need to address in the next five years. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”