Virginia Tech’s website within the Middle for Unmanned Plane Methods makes a long-lasting impression on a rising business – Drones Information


The use of unmanned aircraft systems or drones continues to increase as more and more industries implement the wide range of services they offer.

At Virginia Tech, research with unmanned aerial vehicles ranges from pollen sampling in plant sciences to inspecting bridges and civil infrastructure to short-range humanitarian deliveries. While these small aircraft have proven extremely beneficial in locations that humans cannot easily reach, numerous research challenges related to safe and efficient operations must be addressed to achieve their full potential.

The Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems was established to address these research challenges. Virginia Tech is celebrating five years as a member of the Center, a National Science Foundation-sponsored inter-university industrial / university collaborative research center (I / UCRC).

“We currently have six major research universities with a large unmanned aerial vehicle presence working together,” said Craig Woolsey, director of the Virginia Tech site and professor at the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Marine Engineering. “With the support of our industrial and government partners, we are closing the research gap in areas that will have a lasting impact on the unmanned aircraft industry. Our research aims to make these small aircraft more alert, agile, safer and ultimately more powerful. ”

Virginia Tech had unmanned aircraft systems research long before the center was founded. “The Virginia Tech Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems brought together researchers who would not normally work together, resulting in a more meaningful product for the sponsors,” said Kevin Kochersberger, co-director and associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Through this program, the Virginia Tech community can better support research when interest is focused, encourage collaboration, and expand programs that are normally not as visible.”

Virginia Tech was invited to the center as a member site in 2015 by Brigham-Young University and the University of Colorado Boulder. Since then, university locations have been added at the University of Michigan and Texas A&M, and Penn State is preparing to join. The center is the only National Science Foundation-funded research center for unmanned aircraft in the country.

In the five years since becoming a member, the Virginia Tech site has generated more than $ 2 million in outside support for research related to unmanned aerial vehicles. Approximately 75 percent of the site’s funding comes directly from past and current members of industry and government, with the remainder coming from the National Science Foundation. By pooling small annual membership fees under the NSF’s proven I / UCRC model, these funds have supported dozens of graduated and non-graduate researchers who are helping shape a new technology.

The center works with industrial partners to develop new algorithms and architectures to advance the unmanned aircraft industry. These partnerships provide an interdisciplinary education for Virginia Tech students as they will be the next generation of technical leaders in the field. The knowledge and intellectual property gained from research helps members of the industry maintain their competitiveness in the global economy.

“We are extremely grateful to our government and industrial partners past and present,” said Woolsey. “With their support, we are working together to improve the functionality of autonomous systems, including trustworthy flight control architectures, advanced visual perception strategies and intelligent human-technology interfaces.”

In quarterly forums, government and industry partners have direct control over the selection and implementation of research projects proposed by faculty members. By using their research funds and investing in the center, the partners in return have access to talent, university facilities, tools and resources, and research results. The I / UCRC model also helps accelerate technology transfer to commercial products and services.

The relationships between corporate and government partners at the university also benefit their recruiting efforts, as the students involved in the research master key theories and technologies that enhance their impact as interns and future employees.

“New research ideas keep popping up,” said Woolsey. “Innovations in unmanned aircraft are evolving into other concepts such as urban and rural air mobility and humanitarian use. Part of the drive behind our research is that there are so many undiscovered needs around the world for bringing people and packages up to date. “

New challenges and opportunities ahead of us

At Virginia Tech, a number of faculty members in the College of Engineering lead research initiatives on overarching topics related to unmanned aerial vehicles.

  • Woolsey and Kochersberger are jointly developing intelligent visual tracking methods that allow drones to detect and avoid other small unmanned aircraft as well as larger manned aircraft. The team developed technology that mimics human vision, combining an omnidirectional camera for peripheral vision with a highly focused, steerable camera for central vision, and innovative algorithms to detect potential threats and determine where they are going. Ongoing efforts are focused on discovering individual and cooperative behaviors that improve detection and tracking.
  • By using aerial mapping to document land registry data, unmanned aircraft systems can be helpful in assessing infrastructure for disaster risk management. Inexpensive drones using open source code can assess the structural integrity of buildings and determine land instabilities where there is a higher risk of building collapse or flood damage. According to Kocherberger, developing countries or resource-poor communities with limited resources could benefit greatly from the data collected by creating high-resolution 3D models of their community for planning and identifying problems with rainwater and land stability that can affect infrastructure.
  • Cameron Patterson, Associate Professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, develops hardware security monitors to detect and mitigate malware threats. Sensor and network attacks; Software bug; Sensor, actuator and communication errors; and accidental or malicious operator errors while operating a drone. The monitors can overwrite the actuator commands if unsafe states or invalid state transitions are detected. Such methods will help make unmanned aircraft more robust, reliable, trustworthy and resilient to cyberattacks.
  • Mazen Farhood, Associate Professor of Aerospace and Marine Engineering, has worked on autonomy tests and assessments, verification and validation for small unmanned aircraft systems. As the use of unmanned aircraft systems continues to grow and the autonomy components that enable them to operate become more sophisticated and interdependent, the certification challenge becomes more complex. This project focused on robust motion planning and control for small, autonomous fixed-wing aircraft, with an emphasis on composable reliability guarantees.
  • Woolsey, along with former C-UAS researchers Matthew Hebdon and Pratap Tokekar, and Associate Professor Joe Gabbard of the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, are leading a separate National Science Foundation project to develop drone technologies that are safer and more secure More effective inspection can help civil infrastructure, including hard-to-reach spaces such as bridges, tunnels, dams, towers, pipelines and electrical transmission lines. Using a drone for this type of assessment can make the inspection process safer and more efficient, thereby improving public safety in the US and around the world.

Students benefit from the support of the members

As the unmanned aircraft industry continues to grow, so does student interest. With funding from industry and government partners, dozens of undergraduate, graduate and graduate students at Virginia Tech have had the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research in a growing field. At the Virginia Tech site in particular, undergraduate students are heavily involved, as the strong focus on experimental validation enables participation at all student levels.

According to Kochersberger, the center’s research not only brings together faculties from partner universities, but students also benefit from these relationships. Quarterly meetings and collaborative projects provide undergraduate and graduate students with insight into peer graduate programs, learn about study outside of Virginia Tech, and expand their professional networks. The center also provides a training ground for undergraduate researchers preparing for transition to college.

For the past five years, students at all academic levels have been able to participate in research and training in flight control and sensor development. Navigation and development of sense-and-avoid algorithms; Attack detection and mitigation; Manufacture of airframes; Avionics integration; and training of pilots / observers / safety officers.

Research also offers students the opportunity to contribute to a wide variety of publications, including theses and dissertations, journal articles, and conference papers. In addition to archiving important research results, the publishing process builds relevant technical communication skills and supports future workforce development.

Looking back over the past five years, the Faculty of the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems recognizes the tireless support of the College of Engineering, Department Heads, and the Virginia Tech Office of Sponsored Programs and their flexibility in adapting to a unique research model of sponsorship.

“As academic researchers, we are very fortunate to meet some of the most forward-thinking unmanned aerial systems experts in American industry and government every three months,” said Woolsey of his previous experience with the center. “We are so proud to jointly shape UAS technology as its value to society continues to grow.”

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