Making air traffic safe for real-life George and Jane Jetson

7/12/2021 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Artist’s conception of an urban air mobility environment, where air vehicles, with or without onboard pilots, carrying out a variety of missions can interact safely and efficiently. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of an urban air mobility environment, where air vehicles, with or without onboard pilots, carrying out a variety of missions can interact safely and efficiently. Credit: NASA

If transportation and delivery companies meet their goals to create urban air mobility vehicles, you could soon be taking an air taxi, with or without a pilot, from your downtown meeting to lunch and back. Of course, before that scenario can become a reality, the flight must be deemed safe for passengers and cargo as they whiz between buildings. But there are also other hurdles to consider. In addition to pollution, noise, and signal interference, there’s traffic management and FAA approval, factors on which AE alumna Heather Arneson works.

Arneson has been a research aerospace engineer at NASA Ames Research Center since 2011, initially conducting research on traffic flow management using machine learning methods to develop decision support tools and integrated demand management for traditional aviation. She has shifted to management for urban air mobility.

“Because these flights will operate in major metro cities, shuttling passengers into and out of airports, there's going to be a lot of potential for interaction between the urban air mobility flights and the commercial air traffic,” Arneson said. “It’s important to understand where they can fly to avoid that interaction as much as possible.”

Heather Arneson
Heather Arneson

Arneson emphasized that human air traffic controllers who deal with commercial aviation already have too much on their plate so having to also pay attention to all urban air mobility bands would be more than their workload could bear.

“They can't keep track of all of it, so we're where urban air mobility vehicles can fly without much interaction and how we need to interact if a suboptimal situation arises. The density of traffic is high, and the flight times are short, so we have a relatively small time to deal with uncertainties. And many of the vehicles will be autonomous so we’re designing traffic management systems with that in mind as well.”

Arneson’s specific work deals with air space management services—developing a federated service-oriented architecture, like what was designed for the UAF traffic management system—to give operators control over their schedules and fleet management, as well as how they deal with uncertainties.

“That’s the challenge. We’ll have all of these services doing roughly the same thing and sharing the same airspace. How do those work together and ensure that we don't have conflicts?”

An additional variable to contend with is the weather, with its many uncertainties and the inability to make accurate predictions.

“We know a lot about how the weather impacts commercial aviation and can build predictive models, but urban air mobility has very different considerations. In cities, how does the wind whip around an office building? There are urban canyons that funnel winds. We don't have as much information about these type of micro weather occurrences. There is a lot of work being done to create simulations to understand that better.

“And the vehicles are small and light weight, so they don't have as much power to be able to counteract wind gusts. We need to know what’s happening with the weather, so we can know it's safe to navigate through an area and what kind of you know power requirements are needed.”

Arneson said another component of her work is to be a sort of liaison between industries that are developing the vehicles and the FAA.

“We work with universities and other research companies and help bring that research to the FAA to try to show that we can build decision support tools that will help air traffic controllers manage traffic better. Safety is of major concern to the FAA and they can be reluctant to change, so act as a go-between to help prove the technology. The start-ups move fast, so we sit between the two entities for the urban air mobility market,” Arneson said.

How did she get to this point in her career?

Fresh out of earning her B.S. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Cornell University in 2002, Arneson said she was a bit burned out and needed a break from academia. For three years she worked on the science imaging team for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission. While there, she spent a lot of time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and observed the variety of jobs people held there and noted whether they had an advanced degree or not.

Cedric Langbort
Cedric Langbort

“Given what I saw people who had advanced degrees were doing, I realized that I wanted to get a master’s. I chose Illinois because it is a top school in aerospace engineering, but at that point, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on for a Ph.D., too,” Arneson said. “But once I got into it, I really enjoyed the research and working with my adviser, Cedric Langbort, so I decided to stick around for a Ph.D.”

Arneson received an M.S. in 2007 and a Ph.D. in 2012. Her graduate research focus was on the development of control design techniques with applications to air traffic flow management.

“I really like control problems and optimization. It’s what Cedric and I started working on together. We were looking for applications for the theoretical work.”

Arneson wrote a paper for control design for traffic management problems, went to a conference, and met someone whose work overlapped with hers. That encounter led to an internship at NASA Ames, and a multi-year fellowship that took her back over several of the summers during her Ph.D. program.

For students who want to go into this or a similar field, Arneson said there are a lot of opportunities for good theoretical work and to bring the skills that they've learned in graduate school in machine learning and optimization.

“Also having an understanding of the of the air traffic domain is helpful. It’s hard to find people with that combination. It’s ok if they don’t. They can ramp up and learn about that, but if you can bring both, that's even better.”

Arneson added that internships are fantastic. “Internships help you understand what you're learning in in your degree program and how you can apply that to problems in the real world. If you’re working on your Ph.D., an internship can help shape where you go with that and make sure it's relevant and interesting to folks even outside of academia.”

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This story was published July 12, 2021.